Apes do it, we do it… and so, it seems, do elephants. They can recognise themselves in a mirror, passing a test of self-awareness that is failed even by the majority of our primate relatives.
Until recently, this ability was thought to be the exclusive preserve of humans and great apes. Then, in 2001, Diana Reiss at Columbia University in New York, US, showed that dolphins tended to position themselves to view a mark on their bodies that would not otherwise be visible, showing that they too could recognise their own reflections.
Like humans and apes, dolphins are highly social animals with large brains, and seem to show empathy towards one another. So Reiss turned her attention to another large-brained and apparently empathetic species – the Asian elephant.
Teaming up with Frans de Waal and Joshua Plotnik of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, US, Reiss presented three elephants at the Bronx Zoo in New York City with a mirror. They began inspecting themselves with their trunks while staring at their reflections. One elephant, called Happy, also repeatedly touched a mark painted onto its head, as this video demonstrates, where the camera is behind one of the mirrors
(2.6MB, mov format).
A previous attempt to investigate self-recognition failed, apparently because the mirrors used were too small. “Elephants don’t have the best eyesight,” de Waal says. “It’s important that the mirror is the size of an elephant and is accessible.”
Happy the elephant in front of the test mirrors.