Scientists gave penguins a mirror, and we have a lot of questions: ScienceAlert

Scientists gave penguins a mirror, and we have a lot of questions: ScienceAlert

Scientists gave penguins a mirror, and we have a lot of questions: ScienceAlert

Over the decades, scientists have held a literal mirror in front of various animals to determine if their minds exhibited some kind of self-representation.

Elephantsmonkeys, dolphinsEurasian Magpies and wrasse fish cleaner are just a few of the menagerie to join humans and chimpanzees in this exclusive club, each responding to their reflection in a way that shows they understand they represent themselves.

Scientists have now subjected Adélie penguins to the mirror test, with mixed results. Although it may be premature to conclude that penguins have self-awareness, the research team believe there is enough evidence to consider it plausible.

Created in the 1970s by Gordon Gallup, the mirror test has become a classic experiment for demonstrating self-awareness in animals. The method is relatively simple. Animals are first accustomed to a mirror to get used to its presence and its reflectivity. When the test subject is sedated, an obvious mark is placed somewhere on their body where they cannot see it directly. Upon seeing the mark in the mirror, a self-aware animal will behave in a way that demonstrates that it is aware that it is its body that is being marked, not another individual.

As intuitive as it may seem, to assume that reactions to a reflection under different circumstances might indicate some kind of distinction in itself, the test is not without his limits. Yet it remains one of the few ways in which we can begin to probe the thought of another mind.

In a preliminary study awaiting peer review, a team led by Prabir Ghosh Dastidar of India’s Ministry of Earth Sciences introduced wild Adélie penguins (Pygoscelis adeliae) to their own reflections during a series of experiments.

Wild penguin in the snow field looking at himself in the mirror
Penguins during experiments. (Dastidar et al., bioRxiv, 2022)

Penguins are very social animals, with Antarctic species relying on colonial groups to endure the icy extremes of winter. These animals are also relatively easy to test in a wild situation, unlike many other mirror tests which have required the animals to be in a captive environment.

A waddle of 12 penguins was exposed to the mirror under different conditions. When exposed in groups, there was little reaction, but when isolated by cardboard enclosures and individually exposed to the mirror, the animals studied their reflections.

“The penguins made rapid head, fin, or body movements, some of which appeared to be gestures,” the team wrote in their paper. “Many of these movements and gestures were quickly repeated, but strikingly, all subject penguins’ visual attention was firmly on their images for the duration of their performance.”

The birds did not attempt to make contact or show any aggression towards their mirror image, suggesting that they may have “knew” on some level that the bird in the mirror was neither a friend nor enemy, leaving only themselves.

When “marked” with a red bib, however, the penguins did not react to the change in their appearance.

The team admits there is anecdotal evidence that not all penguins can even see red, so they are not confident in this result.

“Such experiments should be better designed in the future,” suggest Dastidar and colleagues, nevertheless, “our investigations lead us to tentatively suggest that Adélie penguins may be self-aware, as indicated by their responses to their own mirror images.”

Penguin in a cardboard pen looking at himself in a mirror
A penguin in the experiment. (Dastidar et al., bioRxiv, 2022)

Since its inception about half a century ago, there has been growing evidence that the mirror test is not as clear as proposed. Many animals known to be highly social fail the test, including monkeys, unless they are first trained to use a mirror.

Animals that we are fairly sure are self-aware have also failed, including gorillas.

Take dogs for example. They are capable of empathy, a trait that also involves a sense of self and others, but they usually fail the mirror test.

“I thought that because dogs are much less sensitive to visual stimuli than, for example, humans and many apes are, it’s likely that the failure of this species and others in the test of mirror is mainly due to the sensory modality chosen by the investigator to test self-awareness and not, necessarily, to the absence of the latter”, explained in 2015 the evolutionary biologist of the State University of Tomsk, Roberto Cazzolla Gatti.

Gatti tested this with a sniff test equivalent to the mirror test for dogs. The dogs were tested to see how they reacted to displaced snow that had been marked by their own or other dogs’ urine. Sure enough, the dogs spent a lot more time smelling other dogs’ urine samples.

“This test provides significant evidence for self-awareness in dogs and may play a crucial role in showing that this ability is not a specific feature of only great apes, humans and a few other animals, but depends on the way researchers try to verify it,” Gatti said.

Further tests have since confirmed the idea that dogs have a clear sense of self, though it may not be visual.

Moreover, even our own children may not pass the mirror test, with a number not passing until the age of six in some countries. Thus, although the mirror test may indicate the presence of some self-awareness, its failure does not seem to confirm the absence of this trait so vital to sociality.

The original creator of the Mirror Test is skeptical of the penguin’s results so far.

“Penguins may indeed be able to self-recognize,” Gallup said. new scientist. “But that would require much more serious science than what is contained in this article.”

In light of the complexities, it may be that, like many other traits, self-awareness exists as a spectrum rather than a dichotomy as the mirror test implies. This would mean that we need new experiments to probe this aspect of consciousness.

This research can be read via bioRxiv and is pending peer review.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *