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10 surprising facts about sheep!

March 31, 2020

Do not let the term ‘sheepish,’ often used to describe people who mindlessly follow others, fool you…sheep are intelligent animals and are capable of more than just grazing on pasture. Here are ten reasons why sheep are such interesting animals that you’ll have to read to baa-lieve!

1. Terminology

Female sheep are called ewes, male sheep are called rams, and the process of giving birth is called lambing. A group of sheep is called a flock. Within only minutes, newly born lambs can stand and are walking with the flock almost immediately.

2. Sheep, like goats, have rectangular pupils

Their rectangular pupils allow them to have a 270 to 320 degree field of vision. This means that they can see almost everything around them, except for what’s directly behind them, without having to turn their heads. This is especially useful for sheep as they are a prey species and need to always be on watch for predators.

3. Sheep have an excellent sense of smell

They even have scent glands in front of their eyes and on their feet!

4. There are over 1000 distinct breeds of sheep worldwide

With all of these different breeds, there exists some very unique characteristics.

  • Some breeds of sheep, like the Hebridean and Navajo-Churro, possess the polycerate gene, meaning they have the ability to grow 2, 4 and even 6 horns!
  • The Racka sheep is unique in that both male and female sheep possess long spiral shaped horns.
  • The Najdi sheep has long, silky hair, rather than curly hair like other sheep breeds.
From left to right, photo of a Hebridean sheep, Racka sheep and Najdi sheep.
From left to right: a Hebridean sheep, a Racka sheep and a Najdi sheep.

5. Sheep have great memories

A study revealed that sheep can recognize up to 50 other sheep faces, and remember them for two years. In this study, sheep learned to distinguish between 25 pairs of sheep by associating one sheep from each pair with a food reward. The sheep were tested at various time intervals afterwards, and it was found that sheep could remember the faces that lead to a food reward up to two years later. Other studies have shown they are capable of learning and remembering how to navigate complex mazes.

6. Sheep can self-medicate!

They use plants and other substances that otherwise hold no nutritional value to them to prevent or treat disease, and teach their young to do the same.

7. Sheep are emotionally complex animals

Sheep are capable of experiencing a wide range of emotions, just as humans do. Many studies have highlighted the ability for sheep to feel afraid, angry, bored, sad and happy. Not only are sheep able to feel basic emotions, but their feelings can be very complex and include interactions between emotions and cognition. For example, believe it or not, scientific studies have shown that sheep can be pessimists and optimists!

Sheep in field
Photo credit: Jo-Anne Mcarthur, WeAnimals

8. Sheep have a groove in their upper lip that divides it in half

This groove is called a philtrum. Sheep are very picky grazers, also referred to as browsers, and prefer to eat only the best vegetation. The philtrum allows them to select the leaves and other vegetation that they like.

9. Sheep are highly social and smart animals

Sheep form strong bonds between one another, such as those between a mother and her lamb, and other friendships. Studies have revealed they are able to recognize and distinguish between different emotional expressions, such as pictures of sheep with calm expressions, startled expressions and fearful expressions. This is a very important skill for sheep to have, as learning how other sheep are feeling is the basis for forming social relationships. They are even able to recognize human faces!

10. Sheep do not have teeth in their upper front jaw

Instead, the lower teeth press up against a hard upper palate to breakdown food.

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