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.”