Self-awareness in elephants

elephanttrunk.jpgThis story has been covered widely in the mass media. It provides more evidence that we are not as different from other animals as we like to think we are.

Plotnik, et al (2006). Self-recognition in an Asian elephant. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 10.1073/pnas.0608062103.

Considered an indicator of self-awareness, mirror self-recognition (MSR) has long seemed limited to humans and apes. In both phylogeny and human ontogeny, 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. We 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.

This film clip shows Happy, a female Asian elephant at the Bronx zoo in New York, repeatedly touching the mark on her face, or the area around the mark, with her trunk:

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3 thoughts on “Self-awareness in elephants

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  2. I hate it when people say “dolphins are self aware” because it is not correct. There are over 40 species of dolphins and not all dolphins are equally intelligent…most are instinctual.

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