do sheep recognize their owner

Do Sheep Recognize Their Owners?

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Do sheep remember you? How long can a sheep remember a face? Humans can easily identify familiar and unfamiliar faces within a fraction of a second. But, do you know that sheep also possess this ability?

Do sheep recognize their owners? Yes, sheep will recognize their owner and even remember human faces. Despite the notion that they’re dumb and slow-thinkers, sheep have large brains and a long lifespan that enables them to process and memorize faces. 

Besides people, sheep can learn to identify other sheep in their flock from photographs. However, there’s little information on the animals’ overall face-processing abilities. Specifically, it isn’t clear if they can learn to recognize unfamiliar human faces from photos.

How long can sheep remember you

How Sheep Recognize Faces

Scientists from Cambridge University’s Department of Physiology, Development, and Neuroscience trained eight sheep to recognize the faces of four famous personalities, Barack Obama, Emma Watson, Fiona Bruce, and Jake Gyllenhaal. The faces were photo portraits presented on computer screens.

The researchers placed the sheep in a special pen with the two photos on separate screens. Whenever the sheep identified a celebrity correctly by breaking an infrared beam near the screen, they would get food as a reward.

Otherwise, a buzzer would sound, and there would be no food. After several sessions, the sheep started associating a reward with the photographs.

Once a session was complete, the researchers would show two photos to the sheep – one with a celebrity’s face and another with an unfamiliar face. The sheep had a remarkable 80% face identification accuracy in this test.

The next phase of testing involved showing faces from a different angle. While the results weren’t as impressive as the initial phase that showed the front side of the face, the accuracy dropped by 15%. This is comparable to humans, whose accuracy drops slightly when shown faces from an angle.

The final research phase sought to establish if sheep could recognize their owner from a photo without prior training. Presumably, the sheep were familiar to their owners because they interacted daily.

When scientists replaced celeb photos with owner portraits, the sheep chose the owners an impressive 7 out of 10 times over unfamiliar faces. This confirms sheep can remember you.

Before choosing the owner over the unfamiliar faces, the sheep double-checked the photos. The sheep checked the unfamiliar faces at least twice as more as the owner’s image before picking the latter.

As a result, the study indicates that sheep are intelligent animals that can recognize their owners. Their face-recognition ability is comparable to apes and human beings.

READ ALSO: Over 100 Catchy Sheep Farm Names Ideas

do sheep recognize their owner

How Many Human Faces Can Sheep Remember?

Sheep can store up to 50 different faces in their memory. Although this is way below human capacity, it isn’t an impressive figure for an animal that spends most of its time grazing. But how do they achieve it?

It takes more than 200 neurons to record the faces of other sheep in its flock. Over time, the animals use more neurons to memorize faces until full capacity.

So, how long can a sheep remember you? Sheep can recognize familiar people for up to 2 years. Researchers discovered that the animals could remember 50 different sheep plus a few familiar human faces by measuring activity in a sheep’s brain’s medial frontal and right temporal cortices.

But, what happens to the first face when the sheep meet their 51st friend?

Over time, a sheep loses the recollection of its counterparts slowly and progressively. For example, the memory of the first friend first fades into a generalized category of familiar colleagues before being forgotten entirely.

In reality, sheep’s face-recognition abilities work similarly to humans’, in that old faces get overlooked as you meet new friends.

This suggests that sheep can get emotional when their friends are absent (and during reunions), just like people. Ah!

READ ALSO: Do Wolves Kill and Eat Sheep?

What’s the Significance of Sheep’s Face-recognition Ability?

Fascination aside, what’s the importance of studying sheep’s face recognition and memorization abilities?

Treating Cognitive Disorders

Learning how sheep recognize and memorize faces can give scientists more knowledge on human recognition, including clues to curing disorders that interfere with humans’ ability to recognize faces and facial expressions.

For instance, autistic and schizophrenic individuals respond ‘differently’ to facial expressions and other non-verbal cues. Also, people who experience physical trauma to the brain’s right hemisphere and neurodegenerative conditions like Huntington’s and Parkinson’s have trouble recognizing new faces.

Since neural and visual networks in sheep and humans are similar, learning more about the former could help doctors to find solutions to the problems mentioned above.

Feeding Your Flock

As mentioned above, researchers rewarded sheep with food whenever they identified a face correctly.

Over time, the animals learn to associate a particular photo with food. Farmers can use this behavior to their advantage by placing a familiar picture at the pen’s entry whenever they want to feed their flock or lock them inside.

How Does a Sheep’s Memory Compare to Other Domestic Animals?

If you own cats and dogs, you might wonder if they possess the same ability as sheep. This is because they are usually close to their owners, suggesting that they can recognize you.

Unlike sheep, cats and dogs rely on the sense of smell to differentiate people, as their brains aren’t as highly adapted to facial recognition as sheep.

However, cattle and horses have advanced optical and neural networks with excellent face-recognition ability.

Although many regard sheep as one of the dumbest domestic animals, scientific studies prove otherwise. In truth, a sheep’s brain is as sophisticated as a monkey’s and other primates.

Final Words

Don’t be too quick to judge your sheep as dumb. Sheep do recognize their owners and even some familiar human faces. They might act dim-witted, lack a proper dense strategy against predators, and follow each other seemingly stupidly, but they have outstanding face recognition and memorization ability. It’s so good that they can notice the absence of a particular animal in a flock and bleat upon its return.

Although nobody can explain why sheep can’t recognize themselves in mirrors, it’s apparent that you can train them to identify human faces in photo portraits.

This research promises to find lasting solutions to neurodegenerative and cognitive disorders that affect face recognition and interpretation of visual cues, such as autism, Huntington’s, Parkinson’s, schizophrenia, and brain trauma.


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