Counting sheep to help your sleep? Odds are you don’t recognize one sheep from another. Sheep, however, can recognize us and, of course, one another. Do sheep even excel at facial recognition?
In a study performed by University of Cambridge researchers, sheep were shown black-and-white photos of four celebrities: Barack Obama, Emma Watson, Jake Gyllenhaal, and TV journalist Fiona Bruce.
The research team was interested in seeing whether sheep would be able to recognize individual people. Sheep are social animals, and they use a number of methods to communicate. Researchers suspected facial recognition, a complex brain task, might be one of them.
To test this, researchers trained the sheep to associate the image of one person with a food reward. For example, they were shown both an image of Barack Obama and another face next to it. When the sheep tapped the former president’s image, it broke an infrared beam and dispensed the treat. Eight times out of ten, the eight sheep in the study knew which face to associate with food. And typically the sheep knew right away; it wasn’t something they needed to consult flock members about.
To truly test that the sheep were recognizing faces and not just familiar photos, the researchers also presented images of each celebrity from various angles. When shown these different perspectives of each face, the sheep still recognized them over half the time, which researchers indicated is socially significant.
The study, published in Royal Society Open Science, also indicated that sheep recognized their handlers.
Interesting, yes. Surprising to farmers with sheep, no. But why do we care? The idea is to presumably help researchers to understand Huntington’s disease. The irreversible neurological disorder impairs a person’s ability to walk, talk, and ultimately to think. The World Health Organization estimates that between five and seven of every 100,000 people are impacted by Huntington’s disease in western countries (where data is available). So far, there’s no cure, and if you happen to have “the wrong” genes, you will probably develop the disease.
Investigators hope that learning and understanding how sheep recognize faces might be helpful in the quest to learn more about Huntington’s disease because humans with Huntington’s disease have difficulty recognizing faces. By better understanding sheep brains, medical researchers can theoretically use sheep to test therapies that may eventually help people.
Gene therapy has been suggested as a way to treat the disease-carrying genes in Huntington’s patients. Next, the researchers hope to study a flock of sheep from Australia that have been genetically engineered to carry Huntington’s disease. By treating these sheep, it may be a step in the right direction toward developing a treatment for people.