Sheep’s ability to recognise human faces from two-dimensional images

Hi Readers,

I recently read an article which has led me to form a very strong opinion on the subject. There has recently been a study on eight sheep (Ovis aries, female Welsh Mountain) at the University of Cambridge. These sheep were being trained to recognise celebrity faces on a screen (Fiona Bruce, Jake Gyllenhaal, Barak Obama and Emma Watson). They were also tested to see if they recognised their handlers on a screen as well.

Training – Celebrities

Training involved the sheep moving around a specially-designed pen choosing the photograph of the celebrity. At one end of the pen, they would see two photographs displayed on two computer screens and would receive a reward of food if they chose the correct photograph (by breaking an infrared beam near the screen); if they chose the wrong photograph, a buzzer would sound and they would receive no reward. Over time, they learn to associate a reward with the celebrity’s photograph.

Test – Celebrities

After training, the sheep were shown two photographs – the celebrity’s face and another face. In this test, sheep correctly chose the learned celebrity face eight times out of ten.

In these initial tests, the sheep were shown the faces from the front, but to test how well they recognised them, the researchers next showed them the faces at an angle. As expected, the sheep’s performance dropped, but only by about 15% – a figure comparable to that seen when humans perform the task.

Test – Handlers

The researchers looked at whether sheep were able to recognise a handler from a photograph without pre-training. The handlers typically spent two hours a day with the sheep. When a portrait photograph of the handler was placed randomly in place of the celebrity, the sheep chose the handler’s photograph over the unfamiliar face seven out of ten times. In this test, the researchers observed an interesting behaviour. Upon seeing a photographic image of the handler for the first time (they’d not seen the photo version of this person before) the sheep did a ‘double take’. Checking first the unfamiliar face, then the handler’s image, and then unfamiliar face again before making a decision to choose the handler.

This experiment was very interesting and on reading how they made the experiment fair was very fascinating (see first article in references). However, what the researchers are now doing with the findings is something I do not agree with.

A team at the University of Cambridge have said: 

‘ “Sheep are long-lived and have brains that are similar in size and complexity to those of some monkeys. That means they can be useful models to help us understand disorders of the brain, such as Huntington’s disease, that develop over a long time and affect cognitive abilities. Our study gives us another way to monitor how these abilities change, particularly in sheep who carry the gene mutation that causes Huntington’s disease.”

Professor Morton’s team recently began studying sheep that have been genetically modified to carry the mutation that causes Huntington’s disease. ‘

Huntington’s disease

UK research carried out in 2012 found the figure for those affected by this condition to be about 12 people per 100,000. Huntington’s disease affects more than 6,700 people in the UK and is an incurable neurodegenerative disease. Together with colleagues in Australia, the team successfully bred a strain of Merino sheep carrying the human genetic mutation that causes Huntington’s disease.

Whereas I am, of course, extremely supportive of research needed for this awful disease, I do strongly believe against genetically modifying the sheep to give them the disease. Unlike animal testing where the animals are euthanized afterwards to minimise anymore suffering – a quick and humane process, from what I can gather the researchers are breeding the animals so the pain they feel due to the disease can be studied. The team could work on genetically modifying the faulty gene causing the disease in the first place rather than spreading the pain as a result of it, to another animal. Another concern I have is, the disease affects humans once they reach adulthood, if we are messing with another species’ genes how are we to know if effects will be the same? Will they suffer longer or less than humans? When will the sheep start showing symptoms? When looking into this study I have found no mention of ethical concerns – I, myself, am concerned for how the researchers will minimise the negative effect on the animals health.

What do you all think? Is the GM of sheep for the purpose of medical research justifiable?

I would love to hear all your thoughts.



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