21 February 2011

New study shows sheep capable of complex thought

Sheep have a bad rap for conforming to the crowd. However, a new study by a Cambridge University neurobiologist has found that they are actually capable of “executive decision-making,” can recognize faces of people and other sheep--even from photographs, and have excellent memories.

“I’m now a big fan of sheep,” Dr. Jennifer Morton said after studying her seven Welsh Mountain sheep. “Sheep live in a flock, and in a flock they’re rather silly. When you work with them as individuals, they behave very differently.”

Morton purchased the ewes “on their way to the sausage factory” and constructed a series of cognitive tests for them to further her research on Huntington’s disease, a neurodegenerative disorder. The sheep’s skills surprised Morton and her colleague Laura Avanzo, who unfairly had many preconceived notions about sheep intelligence. Instead, the sheep demonstrated complex thinking, similar to humans.

This study is the first experiment to show “executive decision-making in any large animal”--but a lesson that we should not default to judging animals as stupid. As Mark Twain said, "It is just like man's vanity and impertinence to call an animal dumb because it is dumb to his dull perceptions."

Jaya Bhumitra | Facebook
Jaya has eight years of experience in public affairs and communications, and degrees in business and psychology. She is a Volunteer Outreach Coordinator with Compassion Over Killing in L.A. and an avid runner. Jaya is owned by four dogs (Trooper, Lacey, Midge, and Tin Tin) and a cat (Cupcake).

Photo credit:cc:flickr.com/photos/diaphanus