Jan 06 2012
Mirror, mirror on the wall
Who’s the smartest of them all?
Based on our definition of smartness, humans always win this contest. One of the ways we measure is this: Is the animal self-aware?
A classic test for determining self-awareness is the mirror test developed by Gordon Gallup, Jr. in 1970. In it, an animal is marked with an odorless spot that he can see only when standing in front of a mirror. If the animal looks in the mirror and grooms or touches the spot, it indicates he understands his own reflection. He flunks the test if he thinks his reflection is another animal (a rival, for instance) or if he looks behind the mirror to find the other animal.
My cat has flunked the mirror test so often she has stopped looking in mirrors. She even flunks the birds-on-TV test because she looks behind the television to find the birds.
Only a few animals have passed the mirror test. These include chimpanzees, gibbons, bonobos, orangutans, dolphins, orcas, Asian elephants, European magpies, pigeons (in a video test) and humans more than 18-24 months old. Yes, baby humans flunk the test.
Even New Caledonian crows, known to be extremely smart, don’t recognize themselves in mirrors but they know how to use them. A study published last fall showed that New Caledonian crows can see a reflection of hidden food and immediately retrieve the food using the mirror.
Unfortunately most birds flunk the mirror test and some of them waste a lot of time doing it. During the breeding season birds often mistake their own reflections for rivals and attack mirrors relentlessly.
Mockingbirds don’t even wait for the breeding season. They’re territorial all year. This one attacked his own reflection in a car mirror in November in Florida. Peggy Sherman took photographs and tells the story here on her Camping Tales blog.
This mockingbird shouldn’t feel too bad about flunking. We humans recognize ourselves in mirrors but most of us still don’t understand how mirrors work. We tend to think that someone else we see in a mirror can see himself in the mirror too. Nope. We only see each other.
(photo by Peggy Sherman on her Camping Tales blog)