Monday, August 25, 2008

Magpies recognize themselves in a mirror

Self-recognition, once thought to be an ability possessed only by select primates, has now been demonstrated in a bird — the magpie.

So they aren't mere bird brains after all say newspapers all across America today. The AP moved a story today about how magpies pass the classic 'mark test.' PLoS Biology, a peer reviewed journal, published the study. I haven't read it yet, but am eager to - just as soon as I get my other work done! It looks promising and in the meantime, I found a nifty video the research team put together showing the little guys in the test. You can view it at the very end.

In the test, individuals are marked with something, usually a dot of paint or a sticker, in a place they can't see on themselves without using a mirror. Half the time, the mark is conspicuous. The other half it blends in. For the magpies, stickers were used — highly noticeable yellow ones and inconspicuous black ones.

The birds scratched at the yellow ones and left the black ones alone. And, supposedly that means they can recognize themselves in mirrors and by extension have a sense of self — a self concept in other words. To be aware of oneself as an individual is pretty high-level cognition, very few species even have a clue.

I've written about the mark test before, back when elephants made headlines for passing the mark test. Dolphins also pass the mark test. You can read more about the elephants and the meaning of mirror self-recognition here.

Though they are from vastly different evolutionary lines, what these species all share is a significantly large brain for their body size. Why species develop big brains is an even more fascinating subject.

Until next time, enjoy this great magpie video.

It's just about enough to make me want to raise magpies. They do seem really smart — them and crows. But they'd make an even bigger mess than two newfoundlands. I think I'll leave the bird studies to the ornithologists.


Psychgrad said...

Cool. Do dogs pass the mark test?

Field Notes said...

Nope - just apes, dolphins, elephants, these magpies and some monkeys, depending. I tested our spaniel before he got used to mirrors and he flunked miserably.

I haven't done it with the newfies because they have both already been exposed to mirrors. I think that mucks up the results.

Another thing is that dogs don't seem to mind too much having stuff stuck in their hair — the exact opposite sometimes — they roll in the grossest of stuff deliberately.

I have often wondered to what extent these tests measure motivation to groom. A mirror test that doesn't rely on the individual being motivated to groom in order to pass it would make it a more valid test of self-recognition.

If I had thought of one, I think I may have considered writing my dissertation on that instead!

B said...

Cool find!