The antics of an Asian elephant named Happy suggest that her species could be one of the few whose members recognize their own images, researchers say.
When Happy stood in front of a jumbo mirror, she repeatedly touched her trunk to a white X painted on her forehead, says Joshua M. Plotnik of Emory University in Atlanta. Without the mirror, Happy couldn’t see the X.
In previous studies, only a few species—people, great apes, and dolphins—reliably attend to marks on themselves that are visible only in mirrors.
Plotnik and his colleagues set up a mirror for three elephants at the Bronx Zoo. Even at first glance, none of the elephants treated its image as another of its own kind, a typical first reaction in other species. The elephants went through stages of self-recognition common to mirror-savvy species. They explored the mirror as an object—poking their trunks around it—and then made experimental motions in front of it. Only Happy, though, touched the mark on her head, the researchers report in the Nov. 7 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Theresa Schilhab of the Danish University of Education in Copenhagen, who has also studied mirror testing, says that there’s plenty of debate about what the mirror test implies about an animal’s self-awareness. Failing the test, adds Schilhab, “should not be mistaken as evidence for lack of sense of self.”