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Elephants Recognize Themselves in Mirrors

Pondering their image, they seem to understand the notion of 'self,' researchers say

FRIDAY, Oct. 27, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the fairest pachyderm of them all?

U.S. scientists say they've found the first evidence that elephants can recognize themselves in mirrors, which means they join humans, apes and dolphins in a select group of species that have that ability.

The study found female elephants closely inspecting their reflections in a mirror and apparently not mistaking it for another elephant.

The finding, by researchers at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University and the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York, suggests convergent evolution with humans.

Self-recognition in a mirror is believed to be related to empathic tendencies (being able to identify and understand others' feelings) and the ability of an individual to distinguish oneself from others, a characteristic that evolved independently in several branches of animals, the scientists said.

Due to elephants' social complexity, it had previously been predicted that they would be able to recognize themselves in mirrors.

"We see highly complex behaviors such as self-awareness and self-other distinction in intelligent animals with well-established social systems," researcher Joshua Plotnik, of the Yerkes Center, said in a prepared statement.

"The social complexity of the elephant, its well-known altruistic behavior and, of course, its huge brain, made the elephant a logical candidate species for testing in front of a mirror," Plotnik said.

This study included three female elephants at the Bronx Zoo in New York who were exposed to a jumbo-sized mirror eight feet high by eight feet wide. When they were in front of the mirror, the elephants tested the image by making repetitive body movements and inspecting themselves, such as putting their trunks inside their mouths, a part of their body they usually can't see.

The elephants did not react socially to their images and did not seem to mistake their reflection for that of other elephants.

"Elephants have been tested in front of mirrors before, but previous studies used relatively small mirrors kept out of the elephants' reach. This study is the first to test the animals in front of a huge mirror they could touch, rub against and try to look behind," Plotnik said.

The study appears in the current issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

More information

The African Wildlife Foundation has more about elephants.

SOURCE: Emory University, news release, Oct. 30, 2006
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