Elephants are among the most intelligent and social animals on Earth, but do they have a sense of self? A new study suggests that they do, by demonstrating that they can recognize themselves in a mirror.
Mirror self-recognition (MSR) is considered a sign of self-awareness, a complex cognitive ability that involves understanding that one exists as an individual, separate from others. MSR has been observed in only a few other species, such as humans, apes and dolphins.
In a 2006 experiment, researchers from the Wildlife Conservation Society and Emory University tested three adult female Asian elephants at the Bronx Zoo with a giant mirror that they could touch, rub against and try to look behind. One of the elephants, named Happy, showed clear evidence of MSR by touching a mark on her head that was only visible in her reflection.
“It seems to verify for us she definitely recognized herself in the mirror,” said Joshua Plotnik, one of the researchers behind the study.
The other two elephants, Maxine and Patty, did not touch the mark on their heads, but they did show other behaviors that indicated they understood the mirror. For example, they explored the other side of the mirror, waved their trunks around and moved their heads in and out of the mirror view.
“Elephants have been tested in front of mirrors before, but previous studies used relatively small mirrors kept out of the elephants’ reach,” Plotnik said. “This study is the first to test the animals in front of a huge mirror they could touch, rub against and try to look behind.”
The researchers argued that the fact that all the elephants were interested in the mirror strongly suggests they have the capacity for self-awareness, but that this particular test may not be an appropriate measure of MSR for elephants. This is because elephants regularly cover themselves with dust, changing their appearance.
“This would seem to be a trait common to and independently evolved by animals with large, complex brains, complex social lives and known capacities for empathy and altruism, even though the animals all have very different kinds of brains,” said Diana Reiss, another researcher involved in the study.
The study has implications for elephant conservation and welfare, as it highlights their cognitive abilities and emotional needs. Elephants are endangered due to habitat loss, poaching and human-elephant conflict.
“Hopefully this will encourage people to protect elephants,” Reiss said.