Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Focus on pretty pachyderms this week...

The National Academy of Sciences is living it LARGE this week, about elephant-size large. In the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences issue for the coming week (published online-early), there is an interesting study about self-recognition in elephants, a behavior most commonly present in humans and apes, and to some extent in dolphins.

What makes it even more interesting for me is the fact that it was done almost in my backyard, in the Bronx Zoo with three of the four delightful African elephants (Elephas maximus) that they have. See how cute the youngest one, Samuel, is!


The study uses the mirror test, a test of self-awareness developed in 1970 (Science, 167:86-7) by Gordon Gallup Jr, a psychologist currently associated with the Psychology department of the State University of New York at Albany, as Professor of Biopsychology. The test estimates self-awareness by determining an animal's ability to recognize its own reflection in a mirror as an image of itself, a behavioral property referred to as Mirror Self-Recognition (MSR). MSR is expressed in four different stages: (i) social response, (ii) physical mirror inspection (e.g., looking behind the mirror), (iii) repetitive mirror-testing behavior (i.e., the beginning of mirror understanding), and (iv) self-directed behavior (i.e., recognition of the mirror image as self). The verification of this self-directed behavior comes from a 'mark test', whereupon the subject is marked imperceptibly with an odorless dye and observed if it spontaneously uses the mirror to locate the mark on its own body. Animals not exhibiting MSR tend to restrict themselves to stage 1 and 2.

The subjects of the current study were Happy, Maxine and Patty, three gorgeous female adult (circa 35 years of age) Asian elephants. Everyday they were let out on a yard for a few hours for observation. The yard area was monitored by three video cameras stationed at different angles, one of the cameras being hidden in the mirror frame. The mirror, of course, had to be elephant-proofed; a 244 cm x 244 cm mirror was framed with steel support and bolted on the yard wall 30 cm off the ground. A non-reflective metal door was also installed, and was locked in either the open or the closed position depending on the experimental procedure.

Those who can get the article in the PDF format, please do so. It is amazing. Supplementary material to the article contains movies of these observations. Unfortunately, I cannot post those movies here because of copyright considerations, but follow the link above to get to the page. As expected in stage 2, all three subjects showed investigative behavior of the mirror surface and frame including touching and probable sniffing. They explored the back of the wall using their trunks and also attempted to physically climb the mirror wall to look over and behind it, besides trying to get their trunks underneath and behind the mirror by kneeling down in front of it.

Again as expected in the later stages, their investigative behavior gradually became less frequent with more exposures to the mirror. Remarkably, none of them showed any sign of social interaction with their mirror images, such as species-typical visual, vocal, or agonistic displays. Reserved and dignified ladies, weren't they?

All three elephants displayed self-directed behavior during the tests, including the mark test, such as bringing food to and eating right in front of the mirror (a rare location for such activity), repetitive, nonstereotypic trunk and body movements (both vertically and horizontally) in front of the mirror, and rhythmic head movements in and out of mirror view; such behavior was not observed in the absence of the mirror. They even indulged in self-examination of body parts such as ears or the oral cavity, commonly seen with apes.

The behavior of the elephants was strikingly similar to that of other animals who have demonstrated MSR. Although none of the elephants aimed social behavior at the mirror, they all, like the hominid apes (chimpanzees, bonobos and orang-utans, but not gorillas or monkeys) and dolphins, exhibited exploratory and mirror-testing behavior before more explicitly self-directed activities.

A phylogenetic relationship between MSR and empathy has long been hypothesized, first by Gallup, and then from the 'consolation behavior' observed in apes in several studies (References available in the main article), as also has been a possible ontogenetic connection, as reflected in the co-emergence of MSR and 'sympathetic concern' during child development.

Dolphins and elephants, like the hominids, are highly empathic animals known for so-called 'targeted helping' [i.e., helping that takes the specific needs of others into account] aimed at both conspecifics (members of the same species) and humans. As in dolphins, there are numerous reports of elephants (with known social complexities in a herd) physically supporting or trying to lift up injured or incapacitated members. The authors concluded by saying, "Finding strong parallels among apes, dolphins, and elephants in both the progression of behavioral stages and actual responses to a mirror provides compelling evidence for convergent cognitive evolution. Perhaps MSR indexes an increased self–other distinction that also underlies the social complexity and altruistic tendencies shared among these large-brained animals."

Amazing, isn't it?

P.S. A friend informed me this morning that Washington Post beat me to the punch on this, but what the heck! This is a Bronx zoo study, my domain; so I am not gonna budge. Besides, it does not have an authentic picture of one of the playahs, as I do. So there!

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