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Apparently These Sheep Can Recognize Emma Watson and Barack Obama

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Sheep seemed to recognize the faces of Barack Obama, Emma Watson, and even Jake Gyllenhaal in a new study. And you thought you were so special, human.

Recognizing human faces is a skill you may take for granted—but you’re also a human. Can you tell fish or bird faces apart? Past research has shown that horses, dogs, and even mockingbirds can discern between individuals of other species. But now, a relatively small study from University of Cambridge scientists shows that sheep might be joining that club. The research could even help with research into neurological diseases.

“These data show that sheep have advanced face-recognition abilities, comparable with those of humans and non-human primates,” claims the study, published today in Royal Society Open Science.


The study’s authors first trained the sheep to recognize images of four celebrities: Barack Obama, Jake Gyllenhaal, Emma Watson and Fiona Bruce, chosen because there were lots of available images from lots of angles. 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. During one set of trials, they were made to discern between their handler (whose photo they’d never seen before) and a new face.

Take a look for yourself:


The sheep made the correct choice of celebrity or handler roughly 70 percent of the time on average. Their ability increased with training but dropped when the face was tilted. This convinced the researchers that sheep had face-recognition abilities similar to ours.

That’s probably a bit of an overstatement. I would say I recognize Barack Obama’s face 100 percent of the time.


Obviously the study is limited as it focused on only eight domestic sheep, and it does mention some potential alternative interpretations of the data. Maybe they just didn’t like that the non-familiar lacked a reward, for example.

The research isn’t just a silly test, though. The paper points out that some neurodegenerative diseases can harm the ability to perceive faces, like Huntington’s Disease. Recently, scientists created genetically modified sheep that have Huntington’s. Perhaps a test like this could help study these sheep’s “cognitive decline.”


Anyway, enjoy this gif of a sheep trying to decide between Barack Obama and a bike helmet.


[Royal Society Open Science]