The ongoing saga of whether animals can recognize themselves in mirrors now has an important new data point. Clever research on the topic has found good subjects in primates, which tend to show an uptick in social behavior around mirrors and, in some cases, have the capacity to realize they’re looking at their own reflections. Since the first “mark tests” in the 1970s demonstrated this ability in some species, the existential primate staring into its own eyes has become an iconic image in animal-cognition research. (And superb fodder for YouTube videos.)
A new study on rhesus monkeys in Current Biology offers a spin on this question: Once animals do recognize themselves, what will they do with that knowledge? I will let this instant-classic video from the study take it from here:
Quizzically throwing their little legs in the air, the study’s monkeys did the natural thing in front of a mirror: They checked out their genitals.
The rhesus monkeys featured in the research don’t seem to recognize themselves in mirrors on their own. They haven’t passed the mark test, which would require them to show signs they recognize themselves when they look in the mirror after spots of dye have been placed on their faces. But it appears they can be taught this ability. Using a progression of colorful lasers and treats as rewards, researchers trained the monkeys to recognize foreign dots on their faces. Eventually, the enlightened primates seemed to notice themselves in mirrors.
Some scientists not involved in the study (including the developer of the original “mark test”) dispute the new results, reasoning that the monkeys merely behaved as they were trained—that they didn’t truly know what they were seeing. Regardless, the monkeys did seem curious about what lies beyond their faces, as Discover pointed out:
Without any prompting, researchers caught the little narcissists contorting and spreading their legs in front of the mirror to get a better look at previously unseen corners of their bodies. But who are we to judge?
Who indeed? Savor the knowledge that humans aren’t the only primates who contort in front of mirrors, and read more about the neural mechanism behind our self-recognition here.