Sheep learned to recognize photos of Obama and other celebrities, neuroscientists say

Researchers at the University of Cambridge trained eight sheep to recognize the faces of four celebrities from photos shown on a computer screen. After training, the sheep were shown two photographs - the celebrity's face and another face.

For the study, researchers trained the sheep to recognize faces of Emma Watson, Barack Obama, Fiona Bruce and Jake Gyllenhaal.

It's always been known a flock can become familiar with the visages of their human handlers. Later, they were able to recognize the images for which they had been rewarded.

The sheep still recognized the celebrity portraits, even if posing at an angle, with only a 15 percent drop in accuracy.

"Our study gives us another way to monitor how these abilities change, particularly in sheep who carry the gene mutation that causes Huntington's disease", she pointed out. Training involved the sheep making decisions as they moved around a specially-designed pen.

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The sheep's accuracy dipped to about 66 percent - "a magnitude similar to that seen when humans perform this task", the team reported in the journal Royal Society Open Science. The sheep were still able to choose the correct person, showing that they weren't simply memorizing what a 2D photo looks like, but instead were understanding the 3D idea of a human head. People recognise familiar faces easily, and can identify unfamiliar faces from repeatedly presented images.

Recognizing faces is one of the most important social skills for human beings, and some disorders of the brain, including Huntington's disease, affect this ability. "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".

"Sheep are long-lived and have brains that are similar in size and complexity to those of some monkeys". When a portrait of the handler was interspersed randomly, the sheep chose them seven out of 10 times.

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

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