Sheep learned to recognize photos of Obama and other celebrities, neuroscientists say


Sheep can be trained to recognize faces of celebrities, a Cambridge University study found. The sheep were having two options in each step as a photo of celebrity face or another is of something else. Sheep can recognise human faces, spot the facial features of their handlers, and can even distinguish newsreader Fiona Bruce from actress Emma Watson.

Earlier studies showed that sheep can recognize their trainers' faces and the faces of other individual sheep in their herd.

The BBC quoted researchers as stating that "sheep possess similar face recognition abilities to primates".

The sheep in the experiment have to decide which face is going to reward it with food. But there are at least eight sheep who can recognize the former president by his face. The sheep could even recognize images of faces shown at an angle, though their ability to do so declined by about 15 percent - the same rate at which a human's ability to perform the same task declines.

"Sheep are capable of sophisticated decision making", said study author Jenny Morton, a neurobiologist at the University of Cambridge.

"My 2001 paper looked very carefully at this with a wider range of stimuli, more sheep and more conditions", he said. People recognise familiar faces easily, and can identify unfamiliar faces from repeatedly presented images. (A sheep might have had to select Emma Watson vs. a football helmet or gas lamp, for instance.) The third test pitted the sheep's celebrity targets against unfamiliar humans. In these initial tests, the sheep were shown the faces from the front, but to test how well they recognised the faces, the researchers next showed them the faces at an angle. "Although I didn't think sheep could recognize emotion, it made me think about face recognition as a complex brain process". Maybe they just didn't like that the non-familiar lacked a reward, for example.

When the handler's face was shown, sheep picked it seven out of 10 times.

In a separate test, researchers wanted to see if the sheep would recognize human trainers they already know without any training like they underwent in the pen with the celebrity faces.