Thursday, November 02, 2006

Self recognition - humans, apes, dolphins...and now elephants

Plotnik, de Waal, and Reiss report in PNAS that mirror self recognition (MSR), considered an indicator of self awareness, can be observed in Asian elephants. Slightly edited from their abstract: "MSR is thought to correlate with higher forms of empathy and altruistic behavior. Apart from humans and apes, dolphins and elephants are also known for such capacities. After the recent discovery of MSR in dolphins (Tursiops truncatus), elephants thus were the next logical candidate species. The authors exposed three Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) to a large mirror to investigate their responses. Animals that possess MSR typically progress through four stages of behavior when facing a mirror: (i) social responses, (ii) physical inspection (e.g., looking behind the mirror), (iii) repetitive mirror-testing behavior, and (iv) realization of seeing themselves. Visible marks and invisible sham-marks were applied to the elephants' heads to test whether they would pass the litmus "mark test" for MSR in which an individual spontaneously uses a mirror to touch an otherwise imperceptible mark on its own body. Here, we report a successful MSR elephant study and report striking parallels in the progression of responses to mirrors among apes, dolphins, and elephants. These parallels suggest convergent cognitive evolution most likely related to complex sociality and cooperation.

Above video (click the rectangle to play) was taken from the Elmo lipstick camera embedded in the mirror on Happy's first day of marking. Happy repetitively touches the mark or the area immediately around the mark with her trunk while in full view of the mirror. She never touches the sham-mark during this session.

1 comment:

  1. I teach animal intelligence as a module for A2 psychology and I found this page very helpful and interesting. Great to have the video clip of Happy! The textbooks are so dry on this subject and unless an animal can literally tell us they are 'smart' we still, even in psychology, tend to attribute them lower status - this time by intelligence! How sad and short-sighted on our part.