One Self-Aware Elephant

Although I sound like The Count from Sesame Street, various news sources (BBC and others) have picked up on the PNAS article entitled “Self-recognition in an Asian Elephant.” I thought it was worth a mention here, as it describes the experiment used to determine that at least one elephant has passed the mirror self-recognition (MSR) test. This test is where two X’s are painted onto a part of the face that the animal cannot see without being able to see their reflection. One X is painted white, and the other is colorless and meant as a control so that the smell or feel of the paint can be ruled out as reason for the animal noticing the X.

As the authors report, “MSR is thought to correlate with higherforms of empathy and altruistic behavior” and therefore elephants were a logical choice. They only used 3 elephants, and of those elephants only 1 passed the test, but this is still an interesting result. After all, they say that fewer than half of tested chimps actually pass the test. However, all 3 elephants did spend time in front of the mirror in a way consistent with them using the mirror to explore their own features, and did not act in a manner that suggested they thought they were looking at another elephant. Their final point is that this may show an example of “convergent cognitive evolution” in social and cooperative interactions, and whether or not this holds true, the paper does highlight our growing awareness that consciousness — which many people, right or wrong, define as being self-aware — may not be restricted to us humans and our very close relatives.

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