Shear brain power - sheep smarter than previously believed

February 21, 2011
Sheep smarter than previously believed
Credit: James Bowe

( -- Scientists at the University of Cambridge have discovered that sheep are more intelligent than previously believed.

Despite having a comparable to other highly evolved animals, sheep have been historically perceived as unintelligent and were therefore not considered to be good animal models for studying diseases that affect learning and memory.

However, new research recently published in the journal PLoS ONE shows that sheep are indeed smarter than previously believed. The researchers are hopeful the animals will prove useful for research into diseases that impair the of patients, such as Huntington's disease (HD) and Alzheimer's disease.

"A new line of genetically modified sheep developed by researchers in New Zealand and Australia which carries the for HD has given us some unique opportunities to research treatments for this debilitating disease," said Professor Jenny Morton, a University of Cambridge researcher who specialises in HD. "However, if we are going to test the cognitive function in the HD sheep, first we need to understand how the brain works in a normal sheep."

The scientists posed a series of challenging tests similar to ones used to assess cognitive impairments of humans suffering from HD. The tests for the sheep involved making choices that were cued by different coloured or shaped objects, with feed as an incentive. These were each mastered in turn by the sheep. For example, in the first and easiest trial the sheep was presented with a blue bucket containing food and an empty yellow bucket. After a few trials they went automatically to the blue bucket.

Previous research has shown that sheep not only have good memories for faces. This study shows that they also can discriminate colour and shape as separate dimensions.

"The sheep were very amenable to the testing," said Professor Jenny Morton, who conducted the study while she was a Royal Society Leverhulme Senior Research Fellow. "They have an agreeable disposition which lends itself well to being used for such experiments."

The next stage of the research will be to test the Huntington's disease , to see if, like human patients, they also have cognitive deficits.

Explore further: Better sleep may put Huntington's disease sufferers back on track

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5 / 5 (2) Feb 21, 2011
As I grew up on a farm in rural New Zealand and had a lot of opportunity to watch sheep this study does make sense. Sheep can show reasonable intelligence at times but they can easily get flustered and panic too much and then they just go all stupid.

I can remember a pet sheep of mine once figured out how to unhinge an old gate by lifting it off with its head. Another sheep panicked when the dogs barked and tried to jump across a stream that was obviously too wide and almost drowned haha.
not rated yet Feb 21, 2011
"It's Sean the Sheep. It's Sean the Sheep." So Nick Park has been found to be cleverer than previously thought then - He had it sussed all the time!
3.7 / 5 (3) Feb 22, 2011
For example, in the first and easiest trial the sheep was presented with a blue bucket containing food and an empty yellow bucket. After a few trials they went automatically to the blue bucket.
I wonder exactly how stupid they thought the speep originally were.

An animal with less than that much learning capability can hardly exist. To survive without at least that much of "smartness", an animal would have to "know" everything it needs from birth. Including all the kinds of grass that are edible, precise lists of predators to avoid and non-predators to ignore, and where you can find food in each season.

If this were true and a new kind of predator emerged, then all the sheep would become food and die.

If this study shows that sheep are more "smart" than in previous studies, then the stupidity is with the previous scientists, not the animals.
5 / 5 (1) Feb 22, 2011
@gwrede -
For example, in the first and easiest trial the sheep was presented with a blue bucket containing food and an empty yellow bucket. After a few trials they went automatically to the blue bucket.

I believe the point of the bucket test is to see how or even if the sheep distinguish color. The article doesn't give detail, but I'm assuming the buckets would be positioned differently each time.

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