After people spend enough time with others, they begin to recognize familiar faces. On the other hand, scientists have always wondered whether certain animals could do the same.
Although this type of research undoubtedly depends on the animal at hand, a study published in the journal Royal Society: Open Science by researchers from Cambridge University reveals that sheep are just one example of animals capable of recognizing familiar human faces.
Image Credit: Pixabay
With a little help from digital photographic portraits and a handful of tasty treats, the researchers trained eight different sheep to recognize photographs of four separate celebrity faces. Among those pictured were Fiona Bruce, Jake Gyllenhaal, Barack Obama and Emma Watson.
Any time the sheep selected the correct photograph the researchers rewarded them with one of the tasty treats. If they chose wrong, the sheep wouldn’t get a treat, and an annoying buzzing noise would sound.
Once training was over, the researchers moved forward with testing the animals’ recognition abilities. In these tests, they'd have the sheep pick between a photograph of the celebrity they trained for and a complete stranger. At least eight times out of ten, the sheep chose the right picture.
Further supporting the notion that that sheep recognized these faces rather than relying on dumb luck, the researchers showed the sheep the same faces at different angles. Notably, recognition hovered around 65% accuracy under these angular circumstances.
But tests didn’t stop there – the researchers also wanted to know if the sheep could recognize their handlers from a mere photograph without any prior training. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the animals selected their hander’s photo from another around 70% of the time.
“Anyone who has spent time working with sheep will know that they are intelligent, individual animals who are able to recognize their handlers,” said study lead author Jenny Morton. “We’ve shown with our study that sheep have advanced face-recognition abilities, comparable with those of humans and monkeys.
“Sheep are long-lived and have brains that are similar in size and complexity to those of some monkeys. That means they can be useful models to help us understand disorders of the brain, such as Huntington’s disease, that develop over a long time and affect cognitive abilities. Our study gives us another way to monitor how these abilities change, particularly in sheep who carry the gene mutation that causes Huntington’s disease.”
With near-average recognition abilities, the study supports the notion that sheep (and perhaps other animals too) can recognize human faces. The results serve as a testament to the idea that animals are smarter than we give them credit for, and further research of this nature could help advance neuroscience research, among other things.
Source: Cambridge University