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22nd of November 2017


Sheep Have Exceptionally High Face-Recognition Abilities, News Study Reveals | Biology |

According to a new study published in the journal Royal Society: Open Science, sheep can be trained to recognize familiar and unfamiliar human faces from photographic portraits.

Sheep recognize familiar and unfamiliar human faces from 2D images. Image credit: Magnus114.

Sheep recognize familiar and unfamiliar human faces from 2D images. Image credit: Magnus114.

Human face recognition is a critical social skill. Humans recognize familiar faces within milliseconds of seeing them and can learn to identify unfamiliar faces from repeatedly presented images. These skills require both complex image processing and holistic face recognition.

Sheep (Ovis aries) are social animals with acknowledged face-recognition skills. They can learn to identify familiar sheep from photographs and can also recognize known human faces.

Little is known, however, about their holistic face-processing abilities, such as whether they can learn to recognize unfamiliar human faces from photographs.

In the new study, University of Cambridge Professor Jenny Morton and co-authors trained eight sheep to recognise the faces of four celebrities from photographic portraits displayed on computer screens.

Training involved the sheep making decisions as they moved around a specially-designed pen.

At one end of the pen, they would see two photographs displayed on two computer screens and would receive a reward of food for choosing the photograph of the celebrity; if they chose the wrong photograph, a buzzer would sound and they would receive no reward. Over time, they learn to associate a reward with the celebrity’s photo.

After training, the sheep were shown two photos — the celebrity’s face and another face. In this test, sheep correctly chose the learned celebrity face 8 times out of 10.

In these initial tests, the sheep were shown the faces from the front, but to test how well they recognized the faces, the authors next showed them the faces at an angle.

As expected, the sheep’s performance dropped, but only by about 15% — a figure comparable to that seen when humans perform the task.

Finally, the researchers looked at whether sheep were able to recognize a handler from a photo without pre-training.

The handlers typically spend two hours a day with the sheep and so the sheep are very familiar with them.

When a portrait photograph of the handler was interspersed randomly in place of the celebrity, the sheep chose the handler’s photograph over the unfamiliar face 7 out of 10 times.

During this final task the team observed an interesting behavior.

Upon seeing a photographic image of the handler for the first time — in other words, the sheep had never seen an image of this person before — the sheep did a ‘double take.’ The sheep checked first the (unfamiliar) face, then the handler’s image, and then unfamiliar face again before making a decision to choose the familiar face, of the handler.

“Anyone who has spent time working with sheep will know that they are intelligent, individual animals who are able to recognize their handlers,” Professor Morton said.

“We’ve shown with our study that sheep have advanced face-recognition abilities, comparable with those of humans and monkeys.”


Franziska Knolle et al. Sheep recognize familiar and unfamiliar human faces from two-dimensional images. R. Soc. open sci 2017 (4): 171228; doi: 10.1098/rsos.171228

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