Sheep That Recognize Celebrity Images Are Helping Scientists Study How the Brain Works

Sheep and a goat run from their pen at Castello di Amorosa in Calistoga, California. Kristin Hugo

Like many farm animals, sheep can surprise us with their intelligence. New research shows that these woolly creatures can even recognize human faces, including those of Barack Obama and Emma Watson.

For more than a decade, we have known that sheep can recognize sheep faces. As a highly social species, that's hardly surprising. But would they recognize famous people or their handler?

Jenny Morton, a neurobiology professor at the University of Cambridge, wanted to study Huntington's disease in sheep. One of the symptoms of Huntington's in humans is that people have trouble recognizing faces. In order to tell if sheep would also lose that ability, the researchers first had to demonstrate whether healthy sheep could recognize human faces at all.

Morton manages a group of "research sheep," that she rescued from slaughter. "They're just ordinary sheep," she told Newsweek. Her team developed a research barn, where sheep would enter and be shown two images. If they tapped the right image, they would get food. If they tapped the wrong image, they would hear a tone and have to wait.

The sheep soon learned that if they tapped a picture of certain celebrities, they would get the reward. They were able to tell which image was the celebrity, even though the opposing image was of a similar-looking person with the same gender and ethnicity. Then, the researchers switched it up—they showed different pictures of the celebrities at different angles. They wanted to make sure that the sheep didn't just memorize the image, but that they understood the concept of a 3D face in a 2D picture, even if the face had a different expression or was at a different angle.

The researchers chose celebrities including Emma Watson, Fiona Bruce, Jake Gyllenhall, and Barack Obama because there are so many pictures of those individuals on the internet that they knew they could find a variety of them at different angles. They were also given an image of one of their handlers, which they also chose over the image of a stranger. The research was published in the Royal Society of Science.

We are often learning about the intelligence of sheep, who have big, complex brains, a social hierarchy, and the ability to make executive decisions. However, in a flock, a sheep's group mentality kicks in, and individuals can appear a little less intelligent. For example, a sheep will follow the sheep directly in front of it, and without a designated leader, the entire flock sometimes just runs in circles, creating a "sheep cyclone."

"I always relate them to teenagers," Morton said. "When teenagers are by themselves, they're wonderful. But when you get a bunch of them together, they do silly things."

Morton will soon get sheep with confirmed cases of Huntington's disease to study. The next step is to see if they, too, have trouble distinguishing faces, unlike the unaffected sheep. Then, if there are genetic therapies that might work in humans, they can test them on sheep first to see if it improves their cognitive abilities.

"There are many treatments you can use on a person," Morton said. "I want to see how effective a treatment using an animal model is."