That means the sheep were not just memorizing images, demonstrating for the first time that sheep have advanced face-recognition capabilities similar to those of humans and other primates, say neurobiologist Jennifer Morton and her colleagues. Past research has shown that horses, dogs, and even mockingbirds can discern between individuals of other species. "This current study adds an interesting new ability to the surprising wide repertoire of behaviour of sheep".
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A sheep "model" of Huntington's disease has been bred, displaying similar brain and social changes as witnessed in human patients. Their ability increased with training but dropped when the face was tilted. The sheep could even recognize images of faces shown at an angle, though their ability to do so declined by about 15 percent - the same rate at which a human's ability to perform the same task declines. If they chose the wrong photograph, a buzzer would sound and they would receive no reward. 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 sheep picked the celebrity's face eight times out of 10. In these initial tests, the sheep were shown the faces from the front, but to test how well they recognised the faces, the researchers next showed them the faces at an angle.
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Finally, the researchers looked at whether sheep were able to recognise a handler without pre-training.
Recognizing faces is one of the most important social skills for human beings, and some disorders of the brain, including Huntington's disease, affect this ability.
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The sheep made the correct choice of celebrity or handler roughly 70 percent of the time on average.