Sheep trained to recognize Jake Gyllenhaal, for science

Sheep have been known to pick out pictures of individuals in their flock, and even familiar handlers (SN: 10/6/12, p. 20). Given a choice, the sheep picked the familiar celebrity's face over an unfamiliar face the majority of the time, the researchers report November 8 in Royal Society Open Science. The list of celebrity images contained former president Obama, actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Emma Watson and British newsreader Fiona Bruce.

The woolly critters learned to recognize human celebrities through three training scenarios. However, the ability of sheep to identify faces was unclear. If the sheep chose correctly, the testing device popped out a treat.

A sheep looking at a photo of Emma Watson. "I guess they have extended our work to show that sheep generalize viewpoints of the faces, which does require a rich representation of the identity". In these trials, though, the celebrity's heads were tilted, beagle-like, at unfamiliar angles. Recently, scientists created genetically modified sheep that have Huntington's.

In fact, they could even recognise people when pictures were altered or were taken from a different angle, an ability only previously recorded in humans and primates.

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Scientists say the study could help advance research of Huntington's disease, which causes humans to lose their ability to recognize faces, Sky News reported. "I suspect they do have a genuine sense of the identity", he said.

"Anyone who has spent time working with sheep will know that they are intelligent, individual animals who are able to recognise their handlers", said Prof Jenny Morton, who led the study. Over time, they learn to associate a reward with the celebrity's photograph.

"We can't say for sure that the sheep understand that the pictures represent humans". And you thought you were so special, human.

The study feeds into ongoing research on treating neurodegenerative diseases such as Huntington's, in which face perception can be impaired. "Finally, after 10 years of development, we now have a really useful battery of tests we can use to measure cognitive function in sheep".

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