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Ewe would be amazed: sheep solve problems
By Vera Devai
August 31, 2005

SHEEP are not renowned for their intellect, but an Australian researcher has proven they are smarter than most of us think.

And some are smarter than others, leading scientists to believe they carry a specific "smart gene" that once identified will allow farmers to better select their livestock.

CSIRO research scientist Caroline Lee tested a group of 60 merino sheep by putting them through a complex maze.

Dr Lee found the sheep not only worked out how to navigate the maze but got better each time they did it. The results dispel the popular belief that sheep are mindless animals.

Individual sheep were placed at the start of the maze, which measured 18 metres by eight. Dr Lee used the sheep's strong flocking instinct, largely blamed for their brainless reputation, to entice them through the test by placing their "flock mates" in sight at the end of the maze.

The test was done over three days and repeated after six weeks, with time taken to complete it and number of errors made recorded for each animal.

"Sheep on average took two minutes on the first day and then they really significantly improved their time and were down to around 30 seconds on the third day," Dr Lee said.

"We measured them six weeks later and found that they had retained their memory and were at a similar level to the previous test."

To show this was the result of a thought process rather than instinct, some of the sheep were given a memory-impairing drug. The drugged sheep performed worse then their drug-free flock mates. But, overall, some were just smarter than others, Dr Lee said.

The CSIRO is screening 600 sheep of different breeds to determine whether they have a smart gene or genes. This could take up to five years.

The ability to genetically select flocks of smart sheep was important as farming became more technological advanced, Dr Lee said.

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