Sheep are not usually on the short list of the world’s most intelligent animals. They seem to be more associated with insomnia cures — envisioned furry passive creatures jumping over a fence — or children’s nursery rhymes like "Little Bo Peep."
In reality, studies over the past decade show that sheep brainpower can be comparable to that of many primates, with sheep sometimes matching human skills, depending on the given test.
The latest finding, published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, shows sheep can be trained to recognize human faces from two-dimensional portraits, and can identify a picture of their handler without prior training.
“I knew before that they had very good recognition skills,” senior author Jenny Morton from the University of Cambridge’s department of psychiatry told Seeker. “When I picked them up from the field, to work them over to the arena where they were about to be tested, they would come up running. If it was someone else, they would just stay where they were, or hide in the last corner of the field.”
She added that they even recognized her after a 6-month break.
How animals like sheep recognize us, however, has remained unclear. As for identifying each other, smells and sounds play key roles, but photos remove those cues. Sheep do not even see the world the same way that we do.
“They have very different vision from humans,” lead author Franziska Knolle, also from the University of Cambridge, explained to Seeker, adding that sheep can see about 270 degrees, but “have a blind spot in front of their nose.”
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Knolle, Morton, and their colleague Rita Goncalves began by selecting four images to show to their animal charges. The goal was to find photos of two well-known women and two famous men. One of the first to be added was a portrait of former U.S. president Barack Obama.
“We ran the study last year, so it was during a time when Obama was constantly on the news, and the new elections were discussed,” Knolle said. “So, we were certain about using Obama, hoping our sheep would be smart enough to pick Obama. In general, we were looking for natural faces, and faces popular in the UK.”
For the other portraits, which were displayed on computer screens shown to the sheep, the researchers selected television journalist Fiona Bruce, who US TV viewers might know as the host of British Antiques Roadshow, actress Emma Watson, and actor Jake Gyllenhaal.