You're Wrong, Sheeple - Sheep ARE Smart

Think sheep are empty-headed lawn mowers? Think again – sheep are smart. Whether it's discerning between individuals of different species, recognizing their own names, or understanding their surroundings, it's safe to say sheep have much greater intelligence than people often assume. The term "sheepish," which derives from the behavior of these supposedly "stupid" livestock, is clearly out of date. Through extensive research and reexamination of sheep facts, scientists have made huge discoveries about the complexities of these docile grazers. 

Historically speaking, sheep have been key to farming and thus have a deeply rooted place in human culture. However, it wasn't until recently that sheep were analyzed under a scientific lens, revealing the secret intelligence behind their quirky habits. These interesting facts reveal the truth about sheep and will leave you enlightened on these funny, quietly savvy animals. 


  • They Have A+ Problem Solving Skills

    They Have A+ Problem Solving Skills
    Photo: jrigol / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

    Believe it or not, sheep have displayed impressive problem solving abilities. A flock in West Yorkshire, England allegedly found their way around cattle grids by rolling on their backs. Such stories are anecdotal, but perhaps new research will delve into this surprising aspect of sheep intelligence.

  • They Can Recognize The Faces Of Other Species


    Can you recognize the faces of individual sheep? Didn't think so. But in a new study from the University of Cambridge, scientists have shown that sheep may be joining the facial recognition club, alongside horses, dogs, mockingbirds, and smartphones. In fact, some are saying their facial recognition abilities are comparable to that of humans and monkeys. 

    For the purposes of this study, eight sheep were trained to recognize the faces of Barak Obama, Emma Watson, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Fiona Bruce. After being released into a pen, the sheep needed to discern between the familiar face and the unfamiliar face or object. Collectively, the sheep had an average score of 70% – not too shabby.

    While there is still more research to be done, these findings give new hope to the study of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Huntington's Disease. Sheep are a potential model for the "cognitive decline"seen in humans with such diseases.

  • They Map Out Their Surroundings To Move As A Flock

    They Map Out Their Surroundings To Move As A Flock
    Photo: ASPatrick / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

    You might assume sheep follow each other out of mere impulse. However, scientists at the University of Cambridge have uncovered the hidden meaning behind their wandering. Professor Jenny Morton, a neuroscientist, found that sheep are able to navigate by forming memories of their surrounding environments. With this research, she is now testing to see if sheep are able to plan ahead. Morton compares a sheep's intelligence to that of a slow monkey – an average score for the animal kingdom.

  • They Can Recognize Shapes And Colors

    They Can Recognize Shapes And Colors
    Photo: Noel Reynolds / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

    After about seven studies, Professor Jenny Morton of the University of Cambridge concluded that sheep are able to adapt to tests and recognize various shapes and colors.

    One test involved yellow and blue colored buckets; the sheep were monitored to see how long it took them to learn that they could find food in the same colored bucket each time. After switching the buckets, the sheep were able to adapt in the same amount of time as monkeys and rodents typically do.

    During a more complex test that involved food inside different colored shapes, the sheep solved the riddle within 32 attempts, learning to ignore the colors and instead focus on the shapes.

  • They Have A Complex Hierarchy System

    They Have A Complex Hierarchy System
    Photo: donjd2 / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

    Sheep rely on fighting and aggression in order to establish a dominance hierarchy. This is a way of sussing out competition, but is also a sort of beauty pageant. For example, among rams, horn size is what determines a flock's hierarchy. Interestingly, rams with different size horns are less likely to fight for dominance than those with similar horns.

    Experts believe a sheep's position within a moving flock has to do with their social dominance.

  • They Make – And Remember – Friends

    They Make – And Remember –  Friends
    Photo: see like click / flickr / CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

    Sheep have remarkable memories; according to studies, they are able to remember friends for up to two years. What's more, scientists from the University of California observed sheep helping each other through tough times:

    "Rams were found to form long term relationships... [they] intervened on behalf of weaker colleagues and supported each other in fights."