Only an elite group of animals have passed the much-debated “mirror test”, where an individual recognizes themself in a reflection: chimps, bonobos, orangutans, bottlenose dolphins, orcas, Eurasian magpies, Asian elephants, and apparently some humans too. However, as shown by the bird that was photographed staring at its own reflection for days last month, the mirror test isn’t foolproof.
A new study by the University of Cambridge has employed another challenge to test the existential awareness of Asian elephants through a “body awareness” test. Although a child younger than two years old cannot pass a similar test, Asian elephants can complete the task like a walk in the park – further evidence of the intelligence of these gentle giants. The team's research was published yesterday in Scientific Reports.
The test simply involves a stick attached to a rubber mat by a rope. All the elephant has to do is pass the stick to their human counterpart. However, they quickly realize that if they stand on the mat, they are unable to pass the stick. So to complete the passing task, they have the self-awareness to step off the mat while still holding onto the stick. You can check out the video below.
During this experiment, the elephants worked out they needed to step off the mat an average of 42 out of 48 times.
“This is a deceptively simple test, but its implications are quite profound,” Dr Josh Plotnik, a visiting researcher at the University of Cambridge and founder of conservation charity Think Elephants International, said in a statement. “This implies that elephants may be capable of recognizing themselves as separate from objects or their environment. This means that they may have a level of self-understanding, coupled with their passing of the mirror test, which is quite rare in the animal kingdom.”
“In a similar test, this is something that young children are unable to understand until they are about two years old.”
Previous studies gave two-year-old kids a trolley attached to a mat with a piece of string and asked them to try and push it. In an identical fashion to this elephant test, the child could not push the trolley if they were standing on the mat. However, humans younger than two were unable to realize this.
While intriguing, there are limitations to this study. "We cannot rule out the possibility that they may have removed their weight or repositioned their bodies off the mat in order to gain better positioning for moving the stick," write the authors. "Unlike in the studies with human children, we were unable to perform a control condition in which a heavy weight was put on the mat instead of the subject’s body, nor were we able to perform a control in which the stick was weighted by a heavy object independent of the mat."
Still, Dr Plotnik argues that such studies are crucial for humans to appreciate this species, as well as more accurately understand their behavior for conservation purposes.