Elephants Pass Mirror Self-awareness Test

Posted on October 30, 2006

The Washington Post reports that elephants have passed the mirror test. They are the only other animals besides humans and apes to do so. An elephant-proof mirror was constructed and the elephants eventually recognized that it was their own reflections in the mirror they were seeing. Some of the elephants even conducted oral self-exams.

In a series of experiments, the elephants first explored the mirror -- reaching behind it with their trunks, kneeling before it and even trying to climb it -- gathering clues that the mirror image was just that, an image.

That was followed by an eerie sequence in which the animals made slow, rhythmic movements while tracking their reflections. Then, like teenagers, they got hooked.

All three conducted oral self-exams. Maxine, a 35-year-old female, even used the tip of her trunk to get a better look inside her mouth. She also used her trunk to slowly pull her ear in front of the mirror so she could examine it -- "self-directed" behaviors the zookeepers had never seen before.

Moreover, one elephant, Happy, 34, passed the most difficult measure of self-recognition: the mark test. The researchers painted a white X on her left cheek, visible only in the mirror. Later, after moving in and out of view of the mirror, Happy stood directly before the reflective surface and touched the tip of her trunk to the mark repeatedly -- an act that, among other insights, requires an understanding that the mark is not on the mirror but on her body.

It is a fascinating discovery. It is more proof that we must protect Asian elephants -- not that there was ever any doubt that we should protect these magnificent and intelligent creatures.

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