Familiar face calms stressed-out sheep

Much as people do, sheep in troubled times seem to appreciate the sight of a familiar face, a new study of sheep cognition reveals.

BAAD TIME. Picture of a sheep face (top) was more soothing to stressed sheep than a goat image (middle) or a plain white triangle. Kendrick

Earlier research had shown that sheep can recognize individual faces, according to Keith Kendrick of the Babraham Institute in Cambridge, England. In the new work, he and his colleagues are using the animals to study brain activity during negative experiences.

The researchers removed individual sheep from the flock for 30-minute stretches and monitored bleating, body movement, increased heart rate, and other signs of stress. Sheep penned with a portrait of a white triangle showed more stress responses than did sheep confined with a portrait of a sheep face. A goat portrait didn’t work as well as the sheep face did but beat out the white triangle as a stress reducer. Also, the sheep, appear to use their right brain hemisphere during negative emotional experiences, just as people do, the researchers report in the Oct. 7 Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B.

Susan Milius is the life sciences writer, covering organismal biology and evolution, and has a special passion for plants, fungi and invertebrates. She studied biology and English literature.

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