ATLANTA -- Elephants have joined a small, elite group of species-including humans, great apes and dolphins-that have the ability to recognize themselves in the mirror, according to a new finding by researchers at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center, Emory University, and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) in New York. This newly found presence of mirror self-recognition in elephants, previously predicted due to their well-known social complexity, is thought to relate to empathetic tendencies and the ability to distinguish oneself from others, a characteristic that evolved independently in several branches of animals, including primates such as humans.
This collaborative study by Yerkes researchers Joshua Plotnik and Frans de Waal, PhD, director of Yerkes' Living Links Center, and WCS researcher Diana Reiss, PhD, published in the early online edition of the current issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, was conducted as part of a wide array of cognitive and behavioral evolution research topics at Yerkes' Living Links Center.
"We see highly complex behaviors such as self awareness and self-other distinction in intelligent animals with well established social systems," said Plotnik. "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."
In the study, researchers exposed three female elephants housed at the Bronx Zoo in New York to a jumbo-sized mirror measuring eight feet high by eight feet wide inside the elephants' yard. During the exposure, the elephants tested their mirrored images by making repetitive body movements and using the mirror to inspect themselves, such as by moving their trunks to inspect the insides of their mouths, a part of the body they usually cannot see. Further, the animals did not react socially to their images, as many animals d
Contact: Lisa Newbern
Emory University Health Sciences Center