Scientists: Sheep recognize faces as people

A sheep. Smarter than it looks

A sheep. Smarter than it looks. Wolfgang Kaehler LightRocket via Getty Images

The average sheep has always been judged a placid and dim-witted creature, a view epitomised by Sir Winston Churchill when he labelled Clement Attlee a "sheep in sheep's clothing". Sheep can recognise human faces, spot the facial features of their handlers, and can even distinguish newsreader Fiona Bruce from actress Emma Watson. These faces were put up on screens and the sheep were rewarded with food for picking the photograph of the correct celebrity displayed in a pen.

Many other animals are known to recognise the faces among their own species, while some - including macaques, horses, dogs, mockingbirds, and sheep - can identify individuals from other species too.

"Humans do tend to underestimate the ability of sheep", Morton said by email. In each step, the sheep were presented with two options: a photo of the celebrity facing forward for the camera, or a photo of something else.

Earlier studies showed that sheep can recognize their trainers' faces and the faces of other individual sheep in their herd. "Sheep are long-lived and have brains that are similar in size and complexity to those of some monkeys".

Recognizing human faces is a skill you may take for granted-but you're also a human. Their ability increased with training but dropped when the face was tilted.

The Cambridge congregation included eight Welsh Mountain female sheep that learned successfully four different faces of celebrities, during the experiment. Celebrity profile photos were randomly paired with images of one of 62 objects, all head-sized but lacking faces. If they chose the wrong photograph, a buzzer would sound and they would receive no reward.


Even when a celeb's face was slightly tilted rather than face-on, the sheep still picked the image more often than not.

Next, researchers paired a celebrity mug, like Gyllenhaal's now-familiar face, with an unfamiliar person.

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.

Researchers say this is without any prior training.

When the handler's face was shown, sheep picked it seven out of 10 times.

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