Study: Sheep Recognize Other Sheep, Even People

Some furry faces are unforgettable — at least to other sheep.

It turns out the animals use similar neural networks as humans to both recognize and remember each other's faces.

According to a new study, sheep and people use one set of neural networks for remembering very familiar faces, and another to recognize faces that just ring a bell for some forgotten reason. And both can hold memories of the very familiar for long periods of time.

"We know that sheep can not only recognize other sheep, they can remember some faces of sheep for up to two years," said Keith Kendrick, a neuroscientist at the Babraham Institute in Cambridge, England who authored the study in this week's issue of the journal Nature.

"That begs the question of whether they can think about, perhaps even miss individuals they haven't seen in a long time."

Why care about the inner thoughts of sheep?

Clues to Human Disease

By understanding how sheep recognize and store memories of each other, Kendrick hopes to learn more about human recognition, and possibly find clues to curing conditions that mar people's ability to recognize others and the expression of others.

For example, patients with autism, schizophrenia and other conditions often respond inappropriately to visual images, including facial expressions. And those who incur damage to the right side of the brain can have trouble recognizing new faces.

Since the neural and visual networks in sheep are very similar to ours, learning more about how the animals recognize each other could shed light on these complex human conditions.

"There are a lot of common principles that cut across the boundaries," explains Vilayanur Ramachandran, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego. "It can be extremely valuable to study other animals like sheep for this field."

Following a Face to Food

To test how well sheep recognize each other, Kendrick trained a group of 20 sheep to associate the faces of other sheep with food.

He set up a barn-like structure with two separate entrances. At the front of one entrance, he posted a life-sized digital image of one sheep's face, and another at the other entrance. The sheep eventually learned which face to follow to find a food reward inside the entrance. The animals learned to choose the right face among 25 different pairs of sheep faces. Even when the facial images were shown in profile, the sheep recognized which face to follow.

Kendrick then tested the same sheep a month later, another month later and eventually more than two years later. He found that, for up to 600-800 days, the sheep retained the memory of which faces led to food and continued to correctly choose the entrance with that face at the front.

Memory Slipping

Next, Kendrick's team monitored specific nerve cell clusters in the sheeps' brains. From past work, he knew that a small number of cells in the right side of the sheep brain respond to somewhat familiar faces. Another set respond to the faces of highly familiar individuals so the faces are recognized in an emotional context. This is also true in humans.

To see how a sheep retains the memory of a fellow flock member, he removed individuals from the group and then monitored the neural networks in the right region of the sheeps' brains using electrodes. When showing the sheep images of the lost flock members and monitoring brain activity, Kendrick learned the sheep had registered memories of 50 faces of lost individuals.

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