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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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In The News

Neanderthals and Homo sapiens lived side by side

New Scientist released an article last week summarizing the work of Finlayson et al in Nature. Their work shows that “the Neanderthals survived in isolated refuges well after the arrival of modern humans in Europe.” Gorham’s Cave, Gibraltar, was systematically – and deeply – excavated by the authors between 1999 and 2005 over an area of 29 square meters. There was a low population density for both Neanderthals and humans during the time that they both lived in the area, and “the late survival of Neanderthals and the arrival of modern humans was a mosaic process in which pioneer groups of moderns and remnant groups of Neanderthals together occupied a highly heterogeneous region for several thousand years”. Up until this paper, the survival of Neanderthals past 35,000 years ago had not been proven. However, this new data proves that Neanderthals used Gorham’s cave until 28,000 years ago. as modern humans began moving into Europe around 32,000 years ago, this makes an overlap of at least 4,000 years.

It doesn’t sound like much, in the larger context of the evolution of the species, but 4,000 is still – obviously – a long time. One can imagine, even with low population densities, many encounters between groups of “moderns” and remnant groups of Neanderthals. This can lead to trying to imagine what the answer would be to one of the “ultimate” questions: what would it be like to meet another sentient species? Whether via sci-fi or prehistory, it makes for some fantastic daydreams.