What is it that makes us most “human,” distinguishing us from other animals?
One common response is that we have a sense of self, an ability to recognize ourselves as being separate and distinct from other individuals. Thus, when I look in the mirror, I know that I am looking at myself and not a dashingly handsome stranger. You know this as well; when you gaze in the mirror, you realize that the incredibly attractive person peering back is you!
How about other animals? They don’t “get” mirrors, do they? When they look at mirrors, don’t they either stare blankly or, at best, act as if they have seen another animal? (Hey, what’s that other beast doing on my turf? I wonder if it’s friendly….) Right?
Increasingly, we are finding that the answer is that other animals know exactly who is staring back at them.
First, we found out that certain great apes, like chimpanzees, can recognize themselves in mirrors. Ok, we all know that primates are smart; I’ll buy that. Then, it was bottlenose dolphins. All right, Flipper was pretty darned smart, plus dolphins have those big melon-shaped heads. I suppose that makes sense. Next, Asian elephants. Really? That’s sounds a bit odd. They do have those big eyes, but still…. I guess if you say so. Most recently, birds. Hey, now, wait a minute!
That’s right, magpies are the newest – and only non-mammal – member of the mirror self-recognition club.
As published in PLoS Biology1, researcher Helmut Prior and his colleagues affixed a red, yellow or black mark to feathers on the throats of five magpies (the black marks were basically a “control”: since they were the same color as the surrounding feathers they were essentially invisible to the magpies, thereby allowing the researchers to see whether any magpie behavior during the tests was the result of feeling, rather than seeing, the marks). The colored spots were positioned so that they could not be seen by the magpies unless they were looking in a mirror. When the researchers added a mirror to the cage, certain of the magpies noticed the colored spots in the mirrors and displayed “mark-directed” behavior, swiping at the marks with their beaks or scratching at them with their feet, and then checking in the mirror to determine whether they had successfully removed them. The magpies did not attempt to remove the black spots, which they couldn’t see in the mirror. Here’s a YouTube video of one of the magpies during the testing:
This research is particularly notable given the differences between the neural anatomy of birds and mammals. Science Daily4 describes the significance:
These findings not only indicate that non-mammalian species can engage in self-recognition behaviour, but they also show that self-recognition can occur in species without a neocortex. This area is thought to be crucial to self-recognition in mammals, and its absence in this case suggests that higher cognitive skills can develop independently along separate evolutionary lines.
Mammals and birds have developed vastly different brain structures, and future studies will be able to further examine how these structures converge to produce similar cognitive abilities.
So, the magpie, lacking a neorcortex area in its brain and with an evolutionary history that diverged from ours 300 million years ago, shares our ability to look into a mirror and see itself.
The point here is not that birds can think like humans – they undoubtedly think like birds. Rather, the lesson is that we need to be very careful in labeling ourselves as special, as having exclusive abilities and intellectual talents. The more we study other animals, the more have found – and the more we will continue to find – how much we have in common, how much we share. Increasingly, I think we will find that our claims regarding uniquely human abilities are just not true, that they are simply smoke and mirrors.
1Prior, H., Schwarz, A., & Güntürkün, O. (2008). Mirror-Induced Behavior in the Magpie (Pica pica): Evidence of Self-Recognition PLoS Biology, 6 (8) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0060202.
2ScienceNOW, “The Magpie in the Mirror,” August 19, 2008.
3NewScientist, “Mirror test shows magpies aren’t so bird-brained,” August 19, 2008.
4ScienceDaily, “Mirror Self-Recognition In Magpie Birds,” August 19, 2008.