New study on sheep may help research on brain disorders

New study on sheep may help research on brain disorders

Sheep are about as capable of recognizing faces as monkeys or humans, University of Cambridge researchers report Tuesday in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

The scientists showed eight female sheep portraits of a random person and a celebrity. The scientists, in turn, were rewarded with better ways to measure sheep brain function.

Emma Watson, Jake Gyllenhaal, journalist Fiona Bruce and Barack Obama all walk into a sheep pen.

The woolly critters learned to recognize human celebrities through three training scenarios.

Next, the sheep were taken into the barn and shown two photos. The farm animals had 15 seconds to approach the celebrity image and trigger an infrared sensor.

The first test was the simplest.

A sheep looking at a photo of Emma Watson. "Our study gives us another way to monitor how these abilities change", Morton said.

Results said that the sheep were able to spot the right face on more than one occasions. That's significantly better than the 50 percent rate the sheep would have shown if they were guessing haphazardly, the authors of the study pointed out. "This current study adds an interesting new ability to the surprising wide repertoire of behaviour of sheep". They also wore different hairstyles.

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Face recognition is a critical social skill in humans, and we are able to identify a known person within milliseconds of seeing them.

It's always been known a flock can become familiar with the visages of their human handlers.

In fact, they could even recognise people when pictures were altered or were taken from a different angle, an ability only previously recorded in humans and primates. "Sheep are long-lived and have brains that are similar in size and complexity to those of some monkeys".

In a fifth, and final task, the sheep were shown a photograph of their day-to-day handler - who they know well but have never seen a picture of - next to that of an unknown person. "That says to me that identity is important". Over time, they learn to associate a reward with the celebrity's photograph.

Morton and a team trained eight sheep to recognise the famous faces from a frontal photo of each of them.

"We can't say for sure that the sheep understand that the pictures represent humans". "And there is no reason to think that they would recognize other animals but not humans".

The study feeds into ongoing research on treating neurodegenerative diseases such as Huntington's, in which face perception can be impaired. "There is a transgenic sheep model of Huntington's disease, created in Australia by collaborators", she said. Perhaps a test like this could help study these sheep's "cognitive decline".

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