Researchers at Cambridge University led by neurobiology professor Jenny Morton conducted the study by leading 8 different sheep one at a time into a research barn and showing them a photo of one of four celebrities: Barack Obama, Emma Watson, Fiona Bruce, and Jake Gyllenhall.
"We've shown with our study that sheep have advanced face-recognition abilities, comparable with those of humans and monkeys".
Morton and her team recently began research on sheep that have been genetically modified to carry the mutation for Huntington's disease.
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. After training, the sheep were shown two photographs - the celebrity's face and another face.
For the initial training, the sheep received a food reward for choosing the face versus a blank screen. Then, during the trials, the sheep were released into a pen where they had to discern between the familiar faces and an object or an unfamiliar face. Seven out of 10 times, the animals would favor the familiar faces of their handlers over the celebrities.
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To see if the sheep were just memorizing shapes, researchers did the same test, but with pictures in which the celebs' heads were tilted right or left.
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. The scientists have been rewarded better for measuring the brain functions of sheep.
It's always been known a flock can become familiar with the visages of their human handlers. "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".
Morton is using sheep as models for studying human brain disorders.
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