Dolphins are able to recognize their own reflection at seven months old, revealing a level of self-awareness we humans don’t possess until months later. That’s the conclusion of a paper published in PLOS ONE earlier this week. Dolphins: 1. Humans: 0.
Mirror self-recognition might sound trivial but it’s a common marker of intelligence and self-awareness. Dolphins and humans are not alone in the animal kingdom in being able to recognize their mirror image – elephants, magpies, and chimpanzees do too.
To determine when exactly dolphins develop the capacity to "see" their reflection, Diana Reiss, a psychologist at Hunter College involved in the original research, and Rachel Morrison, then a graduate student, studied the behavior of two juvenile dolphins – Bayley and Foster – over a period of three years.
First, the researchers watched to see if and when the dolphins showed signs of self-directed behavior in front of a mirror, which had been installed in their tank at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. Second, they marked the animals with a triangle to find out how long it would take them to notice and pay attention to the symbol.
Foster, who was 14 months at the start of the experiment, exhibited signs of self-directed behavior straight away. This included twirling around, wiggling his tongue, and (most adorably) blowing bubbles before proceeding to pop them with his head or rostrum. Bayley, who was 3.5 months when research began, took a little longer to show self-directed behavior. Foster was also slightly quicker to complete the mark test, passing his first test at two years two months in comparison to Bayley's two years seven months.
Interestingly, though inconsequential to the research, Foster appeared to show more narcissistic traits than Bayley, visiting the mirror and showing self-directed behavior significantly more often. (1,926 times versus 356 times, to be exact.)
Overall, the study shows that dolphins are able to show self-directed behavior from around seven months. To put this into perspective, human children do not show similar signs of self-directed behavior until 12 to 15 months.
So, what does this mean? It's not that dolphins are inherently smarter than humans but they do start developing socially and physically earlier than we do. For example, calves will play with individuals that are not their mother within a week of being born. The same ability can take years to develop in children.
Self-recognition is not the only trait that makes dolphins a particularly relatable animal. Like humans, these cetaceans enjoy getting intoxicated, practice self-love, love to chat, and know a good deal when they see one. Oh, and they can also be massive jerks.