Lesley Morrell, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Hull in England also not associated with the study, observes that this kind of behavioral modeling may allow us to answer many questions. "There is a huge gap in our knowledge here in that we don't know which, if any, of the movement rules that have been proposed actually operate in real animals," Morrell says.
In addition, co-author Jenny Morton, a neurobiologist at Cambridge, hopes to incorporate this work in her efforts to understand the full repertoire of normal sheep behavior. Morton believes that sheep—with their large brains, developed cortices and relatively long life spans (about 15 years)—may prove stronger model organisms for studying neurodegenerative disease than either rodents or monkeys. She is currently investigating a sheep model of Huntington's and Batten's diseases. By fully detailing sheep social behavior, she hopes to recognize anomalous behavior in diseased sheep as well as track changes over the course of therapeutic treatments.
She adds that her study of the animals has been a continual source of surprises: "They're actually very clever in a 'sheepy' kind of way," Morton says. "They're not going to put a sheep on the moon, but sheep do remember faces, they recognize people and have long memories for complicated things. They're quite curious creatures."