Researchers at Cambridge University have trained eight female Welsh mountain sheep to recognize four celebrities and distinguish them from unfamiliar people.
“Face recognition is a sophisticated process, but they’ve got big brains, they see other sheep, and they use this processing to recognize one another,” Cambridge University Professor Jenny Morton, one of the study’s authors, told The Guardian.
The research was published today in Royal Society Open Science, and scientists said the work might have implications for learning about neurodegenerative diseases, such as Huntington’s and Parkinson’s, two neurodegenerative diseases.
During the experiment, the sheep were presented with two screens on the wall. One screen would randomly show the face of one of the four celebrities and the other would remain blank, display an object or display the face of an unknown person.
If the sheep correctly identified Watson, for example, they were rewarded with food pellets. Video of the tests shows the sheep looking at both pictures before trotting toward one and breaking an infrared beam with their noses, thus releasing the reward. If they chose incorrectly, a buzzer rang and the sheep left the area without a treat.
Researchers then tested the same celebrities from different angles. When presented with the straight-on facial shot from training, the sheep recognized the celebrities 80 percent of the time. But when a photo was slightly off to the side, that number dropped to 67 percent.
Finally, researchers wanted to know if the sheep could pick out their handlers from unfamiliar faces without being trained. With slightly less conviction and occasional double takes, researchers found that the sheep could identify their handlers too.
Morton said researchers are hopeful the findings can help them understand how neurodegenerative diseases affect humans’ ability to recognize faces as well.
“We’re hoping that with treatments that improve Huntington’s pathology, we’ll see the reversal of some of the cognitive changes,” Morton told The Guardian. “We want to understand how the disease starts so we can start thinking about preventing it.”