Jumbo Reflections

30 October 2006 (All day)

Joshua Plotnik, Frans de Waal, and Diana Reiss

Writ large.
Elephants appear to be able to recognize themselves in the mirror.

Few animals can recognize themselves in a mirror. Now elephants have joined the elite group that can, according to a new study. The finding puts the pachyderms in the company of humans, apes, and dolphins, and it may help explain their complex social lives and seemingly altruistic tendencies.

To test an elephant's ability to recognize itself, a team of researchers examined how three adult female Asian elephants at the Bronx Zoo in New York City reacted to a jumbo-sized mirror in their enclosure. All three showed at least a glimmer of self recognition. One elephant, for example, stood in front of the mirror and used the tip of her trunk to explore her mouth. Chimpanzees use mirrors to do a strikingly similar form of self-investigation, picking at their teeth with their fingers, says team member Joshua Plotnik, a psychology graduate student at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. Another animal, named Happy, passed the gold standard "mark test" for self recognition, repeatedly using her trunk to examine a white X the researchers had painted on her face in a location she could only see in the mirror. The team reports its findings online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Mirror self-recognition may be part of a more general capacity for self-awareness and empathy, Plotnik and others say. In the wild, elephants console and help other individuals and stand guard over the bodies of their dead (ScienceNOW, 26 October 2005). Such seemingly empathetic behavior probably requires self-awareness, says Gordon Gallup Jr., an evolutionary psychologist at the State University of New York at Albany. "You've got to show self awareness in order to begin to make attributions and inferences about the mental states of others," says Gallup.

If the findings can be replicated in other elephants, it would be a striking example of convergent evolution, Gallup says. "In evolutionary terms, primates and elephants separated an awfully long time ago," he says, but social intelligence evolved in both lineages. And perhaps in other lineages as well, says Irene Pepperberg, who teaches comparative psychology at Harvard University. Pepperberg has tried previously, without success, to demonstrate mirror self-recognition in parrots, but she says the elephant study is making her rethink those experiments. "It really shows us that so many more species may be capable of these complex abilities if we figure out the right ways of asking the questions," she says.

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