Neurobiology professor and study lead Jenny Morton says, "Sheep are long-lived and have brains that are similar in size and complexity to those of some monkeys". People recognise familiar faces easily, and can identify unfamiliar faces from repeatedly presented images.
Earlier studies showed that sheep can recognize their trainers' faces and the faces of other individual sheep in their herd.
In experiments in which the animals were rewarded with food for picking out portraits of Bruce, Watson and Barack Obama, sheep proved they were experts at identifying individuals. Since the handler cares for the sheep daily, the animals were familiar with her - although they had never seen a 2-D photo of her face. "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".
"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.
The new study which was published in Royal Society Open Science, concludes that sheep are smart enough to identify humans and nonhuman primates by face.
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Then the sheep were shown two photographs: one of the celebrity and a random face. Training involved the sheep making decisions as they moved around a specially-designed pen. If they chose the wrong photograph, a buzzer would sound and they would receive no reward.
The sheep made the correct choice of celebrity or handler roughly 70 percent of the time on average.
Even when a celeb's face was slightly tilted rather than face-on, the sheep still picked the image more often than not. The sheep didn't do as well but still passed, recognizing the celebrities about 68 percent of the time - a drop in performance comparable to that seen in humans performing the same task.
Researchers say this is without any prior training. When a portrait of the handler was interspersed randomly, the sheep chose them seven out of 10 times.