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What do former US President Barack Obama, actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Emma Watson and British news anchor Fiona Bruce have in common?
The answer is in their faces.
The faces of the four were recognized by a group of sheep in an experiment carried out by researchers at the University of Cambridge, UK, which showed that these animals have the ability to recognize familiar human faces .
After receiving training, the sheep identified familiar faces among those they did not know.
When the photos presented to the animals were straight, the recognition rate reached 80% , when they were inclined, it decreased to 67%.
Previous studies have shown that sheep can recognize other members of their flock and pastors they already know.
However, this study shows that the ability to recognize faces in sheep is similar to that of monkeys, primates and humans .
“What we did was ask if a sheep could learn to recognize a person through a photograph,” Jenny Morton, lead author of the study, told the BBC.
“We focused on whether or not the animal was capable of processing a two-dimensional object like a person’s photo.”
Pastors and celebrities
The scientists selected eight Welsh mountain sheep and trained them to distinguish the faces of four famous people, rewarding them with food every time they hit.
The ruminants had to choose between two photos (one with the famous one in question and another one of a stranger) that showed computer screens, touching with their snout a ray of red light that, on contact, rewarded them with a piece of food.
Once this capacity was established, the researchers imposed a new task in order to evaluate whether this ability was maintained when the photo was presented at different angles.
Again, they showed a skill well above the average .
And, finally, the researchers wanted to find out if the sheep could recognize their pastors by photos.
Again, the results were surprising.
The next step, says the Cambridge team, is to see if they are capable of understanding the different expressions of the human face .
Huntington, Parkinson’s and other diseases
As trivial as the study may seem, it is not at all.
The research may shed light on neurodegenerative diseases such as Huntington’s disease .
This is a devastating hereditary disease that has no cure, whose signs usually appear between 35 and 55 years.
The perception of the face can be affected by this and other neurodegenerative diseases.
The brain of the sheep is very similar to that of humans.
Knowing that they have the ability to identify a face, can be an ideal tool to study the cognitive decline in sheep with a pathology similar to that of Huntington’s disease.