3 Surprising Animals That Can Recognize Faces

Scientists were surprised when they first discovered crows and other birds could recognize human faces. Imagine their wonder when they saw evidence of facial recognition in sheep and then fish and even insects like wasps and honeybees. This could change people’s overall understanding of animal intelligence and bring about a revolution in computer imaging. Here are a few animals that have facial recognition capabilities that might surprise you.


Scientists wanted to discover whether an animal adapted through domestication or required a neocortex (high-functioning section of the cerebral cortex) to recognize faces. Archerfish were chosen because their hunting style of shooting water at flying insects requires exceptional visual acuity. Monitors with facial images were placed above the aquarium. The fish were trained to spit at the monitors with food incentives. They were then taught to recognize one specific human face. In the first experiment, they could correctly identify the learned face from 44 novel images about 81 percent of the time. When color and head shape were absent, they were presented with 18 unfamiliar faces and chose the correct image 86 percent of the time. These studies in archerfish suggest facial recognition may be a learned trait. This could pave the way for improved computer facial recognition skills.


Paper Wasps

Paper wasps have facial recognition abilities within their own species similar to that of humans and chimpanzees. In order to better understand the Northern paper wasp’s complex social structure, scientists set up mazes to put these skills to the test. Two images of paper wasp faces were set up along different paths of the maze. As an example, Face C would always mean an award, and Face D would always result in no benefits. A wasp would eventually learn which face gave it rewards. Wasps did not learn nearly as quickly if presented with anything other than paper wasp faces. Paper wasps not only recognize each other’s faces, but they remember them, which helps them maintain the hierarchy of the colony without undue aggression. Researchers use facial recognition in wasps to better understand how complexity to this magnitude is possible in such a tiny brain. The key to improving facial recognition in AI systems may lie in analyzing it on a simpler scale.



Although sheep have a reputation for being slow-witted, they are socially intelligent animals with an uncanny ability to recognize human faces. The Department of Physiology, Development, and Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge proved this. They trained sheep to recognize celebrity faces on a computer screen with a food reward system. Eventually, they tested them by seeing if they could distinguish a celebrity’s face from someone who was not famous. The sheep were accurate 80 percent of the time. Even when the faces were angled, sheep performed as well as humans with a 65 percent accuracy rate. In further experiments, untrained sheep picked out their handlers’ faces on computer screens 70 percent of the time. Scientists hope they can use facts from this study, along with the sheep’s large and complex brain and longevity, in Huntington’s disease research.


Scientists now know that facial recognition is not unique to large or sophisticated brains. They have shifted their focus to what gene sequences and changes in the brain enable facial recognition. This might prove crucial in treating certain neurological disorders and developing artificial intelligence.

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