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New study on sheep may help research on brain disorders

09 November 2017

"We chose the celebrities nearly randomly", Morton said, as long as there were lots photos to choose from.

"Humans do tend to underestimate the ability of sheep", Morton said by email.

Lead scientist Jenny Morton says sheep have advanced face-recognition abilities comparable to those of humans and monkeys.

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The sheep were able to pick out the celebrities and earn the food reward 8 out of 10 times.

The study was done by Cambridge University researchers, who said that they were able to train sheep to recognise faces of actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Emma Watson, former US President Barack Obama and BBC newsreader Fiona Bruce.

Researchers trained eight sheep to identify celebrity faces from photographs.

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Morton and her team are now studying sheep that have been genetically modified to carry the gene mutation that causes Huntington's disease. By the end of this experiment, the sheep chose a familiar celebrity's face over a stranger's face about 79 percent of the time on average.

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. "I guess they have extended our work to show that sheep generalize viewpoints of the faces, which does require a rich representation of the identity". "This current study adds an interesting new ability to the surprising wide repertoire of behaviour of sheep". "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".

Along with dogs and monkeys, sheep are social animals that can recognize other sheep as well as familiar people, the study authors explained.

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Morton said that future neurological research, using sheep as model organisms, could build from this study. "Although I didn't think sheep could recognize emotion, it made me think about face recognition as a complex brain process". Perhaps a test like this could help study these sheep's "cognitive decline".

New study on sheep may help research on brain disorders