It is known that several species of animals, including chimpanzees, dolphins, elephants and some bird species recognize themselves in the mirror. But can penguins do that too? An Indian research team has done several mirror experiments with free-ranging Adélie penguins to see if they show signs of self-awareness.
The famous mirror test was invented in the 1970s by Gordon Gallup, an American psychologist. In this test, the researchers put a colored spot on the animal’s forehead, which they can only see in their own mirror image, and confront it with a mirror. If the animal touches the spot or tries to remove it, it knows that it is its mirror image. Thus, it is aware of itself.
In the current study, the researchers did several experiments with free-ranging Adélie penguins on Svenner Island in East Antarctica. Without training the animals beforehand, the team first set up a mirror on one of the penguins’ paths, which attracted the attention of many individuals. On all trials in this group test, individual animals or groups of penguins lingered in front of the mirror for between 11 and 16 minutes. However, none of the penguins tried to touch the mirror image or look behind the mirror.
During the individual tests, the individual penguins were briefly separated from conspecifics by cardboard walls. In the two mirrors mounted on the inside, the animals looked at themselves, making quick movements with their heads, flippers or their whole bodies. Throughout the experiment, the penguins focused on their mirror image, but without showing aggression or touching the mirror.
In another test, the mirror was covered with paper so that the penguins could not see the head and upper body, whereupon they pecked at the sticker and, according to the authors, possibly tried to remove the paper. Another explanation would be that the penguins were irritated because they could not see the eyes of the counterpart.
For the test of self-awareness, the researchers placed a colored bib around the neck of individual animals to test their reaction to it. To the authors’ surprise, none of the penguins tried to touch or remove the bib. Instead, they continued to look at themselves in the mirror.
Although the penguins failed the final, critical test, the authors argue that Adélie penguins have a limited sense of self-identity and subjective self-awareness. “We hypothesize that it is quite possible that similar phenomena exist in different penguin species, particularly Adelie penguins, due to their complex social life in communal colonies,” they write in their study.
However, the interpretation of the study is causing debate among experts. “When they gave the penguins bibs in front of the mirror, the birds did not focus their attention specifically on the bibs, suggesting that they were not making a connection between their reflection and themselves,” Frans de Waal, a primatologist at Emory University in Georgia, told New Scientist.
In any case, experts are skeptical that the mirror test is meaningful in determining whether animals respond to their reflection. Many believe that this experiment cannot prove whether they are self-aware or not.
Julia Hager, PolarJournal
Link to the study: Prabir Ghosh Dastidar, Azizuddin Khan, Anindya Sinha. Possible Self-awareness in Wild Adélie Penguins Pygoscelis adeliae. bioRxiv 2022.11.04.515260; doi: https://doi.org/10.1101/2022.11.04.515260