March 2, 2007

Happy the Elephant Finds Self-Awareness in a Mirror

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Realizing that your reflection in the mirror is you is a sign of the highest cognitive development. Up until last September, only humans, dolphins and chimpanzees could call themselves members of this evolutionary elite. What these species did with this realization, however, is another matter.

“[Chimpanzees] really like to do genital inspection in front of a mirror, which may or may not be something you guys like to do,” joked Josh Plotnik ’03, former Sun columnist, who spoke with students yesterday.

When Plotnik and his research group at Emory published “Self-recognition in an Asian Elephant,” another species joined the evolutionary elite.

After introducing a 2.5-meter-tall mirror to three adult female Asian elephants, Happy, Maxine and Patty, in the Bronx Zoo, Plotnik and his group showed that Asian elephants belong in the elite group of species capable of mirror self recognition (MSR) with humans, apes and dolphins.

Last night, as he presented his article in Goldwin Smith, Plotnik explained the importance of making the mirror resistant to elephants.

“They love to tear anything they can down,” Plotnik said.

After the mirror was put in place, the Emory group recorded how the elephants reacted to the covered mirror as a control. When the mirror was uncovered, the elephants spent much more time investigating it. Two of the elephants, Maxine and Patty, tried to climb over the mirror and even got down on their knees to look under it.

“That’s very awkward for an elephant to do,” Plotnik said.

After the elephants had gotten used to the mirror, the group performed a mark test, a common test for MSR. Simply put, a white mark is placed on the animals’ faces in a place where only a mirror would reveal it. If the animal shows interest in the mark and touches it while looking in the mirror, they are said to have MSR. Only one of the elephants, Happy, passed the mark test.

It was an achievement that neither Happy nor the science community will soon forget. Happy’s awareness was enough to suggest convergent cognitive evolution in elephants, to launch further experiments in elephant self-recognition, and to garner Plotnik the neurobiology spotlight. Plotnik’s favorite was when The New York Times used the article in an editorial calling for greater wildlife protection. Plotnik was proud that his study was making a difference.

Aniq Rahman ’09, vice president of the Cornell Undergraduate Society for Neuroscience (CUSN), the group which planned the lecture, thought Plotnik’s experience said something about a Cornell education.

“Two, three years out and he’s already in the national press,” Rahman said. “The turnaround is so fast from Cornell.”

The lecture was put on by the Cornell Undergraduate Society for Neuroscience cosponsored by the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior.