Study shows sheep can recognize celebrity faces

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Sheep learnt to recognise Barack Obama after being shown his photo a few dozen times, said a study on November 8 which suggested our four-legged friends may be smarter than we think.

In a specially equipped pen, sheep were shown pictures of people on two computer screens. A celebrity's face would appear on one screen, while a different image appeared on the other.

In experiments in which the animals were rewarded with food for picking out portraits of Bruce, Watson and Barack Obama, sheep proved they were experts at identifying individuals.

Morton and her team are now studying sheep that have been genetically modified to carry the gene mutation that causes Huntington's disease.

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Next, researchers paired a celebrity mug, like Gyllenhaal's now-familiar face, with an unfamiliar person. When a portrait of the handler was interspersed randomly, the sheep chose them seven out of 10 times.

To see if the sheep were just memorizing shapes, researchers did the same test, but with pictures in which the celebs' heads were tilted right or left. "This current study adds an interesting new ability to the surprising wide repertoire of behaviour of sheep". Eight times out 10 the sheep picked the celebrity. On her first try, one sheep appeared taken aback by the new face in the mix. Later, they were able to recognize the images for which they had been rewarded. However, their ability to recognize human faces from photos alone is novel. "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 [mental] abilities", Morton said. "Either the human face is similar enough to the sheep face that [it] activates the sheep face-processing system, or human-face recognition relies on more general-purpose recognition systems".

The researchers published their findings today in the Royal Society Open Science journal with the title "Sheep recognize familiar and unfamiliar human faces from two-dimensional images".

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