Elephant art has been a sensation for many years. Although trainers teach the pachyderms to paint — how to hold a brush with their trunks, how to make strokes on a canvas — from there, according to an interview with prominent elephant art academy founder Alex Melamid, trainers typically try to stay out of the elephants' artistic domain and let them work in their individual styles [source: Bukowski].
But does this artwork represent a form of self-expression that could help determine if elephants view the world with humanlike consciousness? And what about self-recognition or self-awareness? Mirror testing is one way to understand animal cognition.
The mirror self-recognition (MSR) test or mark test is a classic test that involves placing a colored mark on an animal's body, then showing the animal the reflection of their marked body in a mirror, and observing the animal's reaction.
If the animal tries to remove the colored tag or mark from their body, the mirror test shows they recognize their own reflection.
The Mirror Test and Animal Cognition
Many people have no trouble intuitively believing that fellow big-brained mammals (and often their smaller-brained buds in the case of beloved household pets) exhibit some signs of consciousness.
But when it comes to non-mammalian species like fish, insects and worms, those same people often waver when considering whether they, too, exhibit anything close to resembling consciousness.
Some consider self-recognition a herald of self-awareness. Self-awareness is a state that can denote introspection, personal identity and humanlike levels of consciousness.
In human development, many consider children self-aware once they have the cognitive ability to recognize their own faces in a mirror. Human children recognize themselves in the mirror test around 18 months of age.
Early research revealed that, like humans, some members of the great ape family can recognize their own reflections in mirrors, and for decades, it was assumed that was the extent of it. But when the classic mirror test was tailored to better suit the specific characteristics of dolphins and elephants, it was found that they, too, exhibit signs of self-recognition.
In the case of dolphins, researchers developed a test for them to indicate interest in a mark without hand gestures, and with elephants, their level of interest was examined when mirrors large enough for them to see their entire bodies were placed inside their habitats.
Perhaps more surprisingly, due to the even greater evolutionary divide, some species of birds and fish have evolved the capacity for self-recognition. A 2008 study found that magpies also try to examine strange markings indirectly placed beneath their beaks when set in front of a mirror.
In 2019, the cleaner fish (Labroides dimidiatus) passed a modified mark test. This tiny fish exhibited a scraping behavior when it saw in its reflection a colored tag on its body [source: Kohda]. This study raised questions about whether self-recognition, such as in the mirror test, is an accurate measure of self-consciousness.
Nonhuman Animals That Pass the Mirror Test
A 2023 review of 50 years of animal self-recognition studies of found that, so far, only social animals exhibit self-recognition [source: Lei].
These animals have passed mirror tests in at least two separate studies without prior training:
Bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus)
Bonobos (Pan paniscus)
Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes)
Cleaner wrasse (Labroides dimidiatus)
Orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus)
These other animals have passed the mirror test just once or have had controversial results:
Asian elephants (Elephas maximus)
Clark’s nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana)
Domestic dogs (Canis familiaris)
Eurasian magpies (Pica pica)
Garter snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis)
Indian house crows (Corvus splendens)
Orcas (Orcinus orca)
Pigeons (Columba livia)
Rhesus macaque (Macaca mulatta)
Three species of ants: Myrmica sabuleti, Myrmica rubra and Myrmica ruginodis
Aldhous, Peter. "Elephants see themselves in the mirror." New Scientist. Oct. 30, 2006. (3/2/2010) http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn10402-elephants-see-themselves-in-the-mirror.html
Branon, Nicole. "Magpies Recognize Their Faces in the Mirror." Scientific American. December 2008. (3/2/2010) http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=magpies-recognize-their-faces
Bukowski, Elizabeth. "Why do elephants paint?" Salon. March 23, 2000. (3/2/2010) http://www.salon.com/people/feature/2000/03/23/elephantart/
"Elephant Painting." Snopes.com. April 3, 2008. (3/2/2010) http://www.snopes.com/photos/animals/elephantpainting.asp
"Elephant 'self-portrait' on show." BBC. July 21, 2006. (3/2/2010) http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/scotland/edinburgh_and_east/5203120.stm
Knobe, Joshua and Prinz, Jesse. "Intuitions about Consciousness: Experimental Studies." University of North Carolina -- Chapel Hill. http://www.unc.edu/~knobe/consciousness.pdf
Koch, Christof. "Exploring Consciousness through the Study of Bees." Scientific American. December 2008. (3/2/2010) http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=exploring-consciousness
Pinker, Steven. "The Brain: The Mystery of Consciousness." Time. Jan. 19, 2007. (3/2/2010) http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1580394-1,00.html
Reiss, Diana and Marino, Lori. "Mirror self-recognition in the bottlenose dolphin: A case of cognitive convergence." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. May 8, 2001. (3/2/2010) http://www.pnas.org/content/98/10/5937.full
The Asian Elephant Art and Conservation Project Web site. (3/2/2010) http://www.elephantart.com/catalog/splash.php
Van Gulick, Robert. "Consciousness." Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Aug. 16, 2004. (3/2/2010) http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/consciousness/
Kohda, Masanori et al. “If a fish can pass the mark test, what are the implications for consciousness and self-awareness testing in animals?.” PLoS biology vol. 17,2 e3000021. 7 Feb. 2019, doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.3000021
Lei, Yanyu. “Sociality and self-awareness in animals.” Frontiers in psychology vol. 13 1065638. 9 Jan. 2023, doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2022.1065638
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