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6 May 2001 Issue
Elephants Recognize 'Self'

by Deborah Blum - Discovery.com News

August 28, 2000 -- Just as a person looking into a mirror and seeing a dirty face will try to clean up, an elephant studying its reflection will try to rub smudges off its forehead with its trunk.

The basic finding that elephants recognize themselves in the mirror is a startling one for scientists who had long assumed that only humans and a few higher apes were smart enough to achieve "self-recognition." Many behavioral researchers consider that ability to be a hallmark of complex intelligence.

"Actually, one of the reasons I did the study was that I got tired of hearing people say that only humans and chimps do this, only humans and chimps do that," said Patricia Simonet, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Nevada in Reno. "Elephants are so smart -- I was sure they could do it."

Simonet presented her finding at last week's international conference on Animal Intelligence and Social Complexity.

"I was absolutely intrigued by the study," said Katharine Payne, a biology professor at Cornell University, who studies sonar communications between elephants. "Elephants are just surprising all of us."

It's been 30 years since researchers seriously began using mirrors as a way to test animals' intelligence, notably whether they had a sense of "self" versus other. Human infants, in fact, seem somewhat confused by mirror images until about the age of 18 months, leading development psychologists to suggest very young babies tend to see themselves and their mothers as part of the same unit.

The basic test is simple: A scientist paints spots on an animal's face and then allows it to see its reflection in a mirror. If the animal recognizes itself, it tries to clean itself, while watching the face in the mirror.

Chimpanzees and gorillas are astonishingly good at this. Many smart monkeys are not. Rhesus macaques, a species of Asian monkey that can play computer games, tend to look behind the mirror for the rest of that strange, spotty animal.

Simonet did her study with two Asian elephants -- 45-year-old Bertha and eight-year-old Angel -- both performers at a Las Vegas casino. For about two weeks, she simply put up a large mirror in the elephants' barn so that they could get used to it and their images. Then, with the help of the elephants' trainer, she painted large white blotches on their foreheads, cheeks and hips.

Bertha almost immediately began scrubbing at her marked forehead with her trunk. She then backed up, noticed her stained hip in the mirror, and began trying to clean as well.

But when Angel tried to look at herself, an unexpected problem arose. The older elephant, it seems, loved looking at herself in the mirror and wouldn't share.

"It was funny," Simonet said, saying she now plans to expand the study to a larger group of elephants. "She would share anything else with the baby. She let her have all the toys. But the mirror -- it was hers."

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