Dr. Universe: What’s inside a sheep’s brain? – Aiden, 11
A sheep brain is about the size of a human fist and is squishy like Jell-O. In some ways, a sheep brain is very similar to a human brain. In other ways, it is quite different.
I learned about sheep brains from my friend Craig McConnel, a researcher at Washington State University who is very curious about ruminants, a group of animals that includes cattle, giraffes, deer, antelopes, and of course, sheep.
Like a lot of mammal brains, a sheep brain is made up of grey and white matter. It has folds and grooves, but not quite as many as a human brain. It’s also a little smoother.
A human brain is about ten times as heavy as a sheep brain. Of course, just because an animal has a bigger brain doesn’t mean it is necessarily smarter. A sperm whale, for example, has a brain that is about five times heavier than a human brain.
Just like you and many other mammals, sheep have a part of the brain called the cerebrum. It is important for controlling movement, the senses, and thinking. Even though sheep might seem like they just stare off into space and chew grass all day, they do use their brains to think, just not on the same level as humans, McConnel said.
You and a sheep also have a brain stem which helps control the flow of messages between the brain and the rest of the body. There is also a cerebellum, which mainly helps with muscle functions and more movement—including the ability to move around with your flock.
Like us, sheep are social animals. When they graze together, they often eat in groups of five or so and keep an eye on each other. One sheep usually leads the way and the rest follow. It’s an instinct or a behavior that an animal has from birth.
One major difference between sheep and human brains has to do with the sense of smell. In sheep, the brain’s olfactory bulb is two or three times the size of the human olfactory bulb. It provides the sheep with a strong sense of smell which is key for survival.
A mother can use her sense of smell to find her baby in a flock. A baby can smell its way back to its mother if it gets lost. The leader of the herd can sniff out a predator like a wolf and that sense of smell will allow it to warn the other sheep.
Some sheep, like bighorn sheep, even have strong horns and thick skulls that help protect their heads and soft brains. Some scientists are studying them to learn about concussions. While a lot of mammals have similar things going on in their brains, each brain is little different, and sometimes it’s those differences that can help an animal survive, whether they are out on a farm or out in the wild.