Time To Unravel The Sheep Baa Code

A sheep sideways on against a sand and green plain background and a bar code label above it and text 'Baa Code'

The time to unravel the sheep baa code is of course a joke. The sheep illustrated in this Baa Code greeting card is of course a pun on the words ‘bar’ and ‘baa’. Of course, it works best in British English which does not have the retroflex ‘r’, so the two sounds are similar – unlike American pronunciation where the ‘r’ would be heard.

And in the dystopian imaginations of this era, people have imagined us humans with bar codes (not the sheep baa code) tattooed on our necks from birth. That way we will be ready to serve the greater good. More likely it would be someone else’s greater good. Either way it would be like sheep to the slaughter.

Remember school teachers saying, “Stand up for what you believe in. Don’t act like sheep, always following someone else.” Well maybe they were wrong because it turns out sheep have more gumption than they’re given credit for.

Research Shows That Sheep Are Intelligent

Researchers from the Royal Veterinary College at the University of London have discovered that sheep are actually quite canny. Often preyed on by more aggressive animals, they naturally head toward the centre of a flock to stay safe. Let the wolf get the stragglers!

Maybe it’s time to re-evaluate the way we talk about them. Our use of language has not been kind. Look at sheepish, like my embarrassed grin when I discover I forgot my wallet at the checkout.

Sheep definitely don’t come across as the strong, silent type. More like bleating, nervous, don’t-notice-me types.

But there’s more corroboration that a focused, self-interested, proactive brain lives in these woolly, huggable animals. Cambridge University scientists say their studies prove that sheep know how to effectively capitalize on what they find in their environment to not just survive, but to be comfortable.

As Bright As Primates In Several Respects

Professor Jenny Morton, a neuroscientist who headed the study, says they are as bright as primates in several respects.

Sheep’s brains are much larger than those of rodents, similar in size to the brain of a rhesus macaque, and with the complex folds that are seen in primate brains. Crucially, their brains also have basal ganglia similar to ours – this is the area deep in the brain that, along with the cerebral cortex, is responsible for important functions such as the control of movement and ‘executive functions’ such as decision-making, learning and habit formation.

For example, spying something better to eat on the other side of cattle grid, the sheep got onto their backs and rolled over the grid, to the amazement of the watching scientists.

Of course we all know that ewes and their lambs recognise each other’s bleats: They know the sheep baa code.

But scientists in Australia discovered that sheep can do more than recognise bleats. They can recognize the faces of other sheep that are known to them. And they can find their way through a maze. The researchers posted photos of familiar sheep along different routes throughout the complex maze. The test sheep used the routes lined with familiar faces.

And it’s not just sheep faces. In a test at Cambridge, researchers proved that sheep can identify and remember human faces for at least two years.

Sheep Are Social

Sheep are less afraid and wimpy than they are social. They get nervous alone. In fact, they feel most comfortable in a group of at least five. And in that sense they are definitely not sheepish.

I think that makes them perfect for committee work. Many people have trouble with small group dynamics. One-on-one is fine, and they can handle giving a presentation to an audience. But in a small group, they clam up and get stressed.

The Sheep Baa Code

Clearly sheep have done a much better job than some humans, mastering one of the most essential social configurations, small groups. That definitely qualifies them as animals who know the baa code. I see them at academic gatherings, reflectively chewing their cud before they offer a ‘sheep baa code’ bleat in conversation.

Contributions to this post by Mary Hannick

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