Happy the elephant looks at her reflection in a jumbo-sized mirror. Click on the image to watch Happy pass the mark test by touching the mark above her eye.  Credit: Diana Reiss, Wildlife Conservation Society

When Happy the elephant checks herself out in the mirror, it’s not just vanity. It’s evidence of a self-awareness that makes elephants the newest members of the “cognitive elite.”

Elephants have now joined apes and dolphins in being part of a small group of animals that are able to recognize themselves in the mirror, according to a study published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“[The elephants] showed a capacity for self-reflection and self-recognition that was once assumed to be uniquely human,” said Frans de Waal, one of the study’s authors and a primatologist at Emory University. “This broadens the view on complex sociality. It’s not just a primate thing.”

Scientists had long anticipated that elephants might be capable of self-recognition; like other self-aware animals, the pachyderms have large brains, complex social systems, and empathetic behavior. (Elephants are known to help their herdmates by lifting up injured animals, for instance.)

For the study, researchers from Emory and New York’s Wildlife Conservation Society placed a large mirror in the elephants’ yard at the Bronx Zoo and observed their reactions. Animals of species that are not self-aware will react to their reflections as if they were fellow animals. But the elephants in this experiment—Happy, Maxine, and Patty—inspected the mirror instead of interacting socially with the image reflected in it.

They also made repetitive movements in front of the mirror and apparently used it to inspect their body parts; Maxine, for instance, put her trunk tip into her mouth and, the authors said, looked as though she was trying to study her mouth’s interior.

Because the elephants used the mirror to examine their bodies, “all of them showed signs that they connected the mirror image with themselves,” de Waal said.

Happy even passed the so-called mark test, the ultimate test of self-recognition. Researchers drew two marks—one white, one translucent—above her eyes. When Happy saw her image in the mirror, she repeatedly brought her trunk to her own head to touch the white mark.

Researchers consider this strong evidence that Happy used her reflection in the mirror to understand that the white mark was on her own head. (Because Happy touched the visible mark and not the invisible one, the researchers can conclude that she was responding to the mark’s image, rather than the way it smelled or felt on her skin.)

Though Patty and Maxine didn’t pass the mark test, it is typical for only some animals of self-recognizing species to pass. Scientists aren’t sure why that is, but suggest that not all individual animals are bothered by marks on their faces.

Researchers suggest that the capability to self-recognize may explain elephants’ concern for others.

“In order to have those higher levels of empathy, you probably need to have a higher understanding of self,” de Waal said.

But some researchers are less convinced that mirror self-recognition implies empathy.

“I think it creates the possibility for that kind of thing,” said Robert Mitchell, a psychologist at Eastern Kentucky University who has done research on self-recognition. “But I don’t think that recognizing yourself in the mirror necessarily means that you know a lot about others’ minds.”

Earlier experiments have failed to show self-recognition in elephants, perhaps because those experiments used small mirrors outside of the animals’ enclosures, de Waal said. A larger mirror reflects elephants’ entire bodies, and its presence in the yard allows the animals to interact with it.

Originally published November 3, 2006

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