A small tropical reef fish was able to recognize itself in a mirror, scientists said on Feb. 7 in a finding that raises provocative questions about assessing self-awareness and cognitive abilities in animals.
The study involved experiments in which the fish species Labroides dimidiatus, called the bluestreak cleaner wrasse, was given a mirror self-recognition test, a technique developed in 1970 for gauging animal self-awareness.
In aquarium experiments at Osaka City University in Japan, the researchers applied a brown-colored mark on the fish’s body in a place that could be seen only in a mirror reflection. The fish tried to remove the marks by scraping their bodies on hard surfaces after watching themselves in a mirror, but never tried to remove them without a mirror present, indicating they understood the reflection was of them, the researchers said. When a transparent, rather than brown, mark was applied, the fish never tried to remove it.
The 10-cm species consumes parasites and dead tissue off skin of other reef fish in a symbiotic relationship. The brown mark’s color resembled the color of these parasites. The fish “shows behaviors during the mirror test that are accepted as evidence for self-awareness in many other species,” said evolutionary biologist Alex Jordan of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Germany, who led the study published in the journal PLOS Biology.
Jordan, however, questioned whether the test represents a reliable measure of animal cognitive abilities. “I don’t claim that fish lack self-awareness, but rather that the minimal required explanation for the behaviors we observe in the mirror test does not require invocation of self-awareness, self-consciousness, or theory of mind,” Jordan said.
The test has been passed by great apes including chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans as well as dolphins, killer whales, an elephant and a magpie species, but failed by some other animals. Humans pass it at around 18 months old. “I consider that there is a spectrum of animal consciousness, with some animals, likely primates, showing abilities closer to human consciousness,” Jordan said. “My point with this paper is not that fish are as smart as chimpanzees, but that the way we ask that very question across taxa (animal groups) needs to be re-evaluated.”
University at Albany evolutionary psychologist Gordon Gallup, who pioneered the mirror test, called the new study “not methodologically sound” and faulted the researchers for a “zeal to undermine the integrity” of the technique to appraise animal self-awareness. Emory University primatologist Frans de Waal, who has studied mirror self-recognition in mammals, called the findings “interesting and provocative.” “The hope is that this study will throw open the discussion about self-awareness in animals. Instead of the black-and-white distinction we have had thus far, that some animals have it and most of them don’t, we need to develop a more gradualist perspective,” de Waal said.
1. provocative adj.
(fa1 ren2 shen1 xing3; yin3 fa1 si1 bian4)
2. self-recognition phr.
(zi4 wo3 ren4 zhi1)
3. gauge v.
(gu1 ji4; pan4 duan4)
4. apply v.
塗；抹 (tu2; mo3)
5. primate n.
(ling2 zhang3 lei4)
6. appraise v.
評估 (ping2 gu1)
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B: I envy your friend. I’d love to work from home. A: He doesn’t mind not being able to meet his colleagues face to face every day. Still, even he occasionally misses the office buzz and ability to socialize. His wife finds the situation more difficult, though. B: Why? She doesn’t like him hanging around the house all day? A: No, she has a job, too, with many international clients, and she’s used to traveling overseas on a regular basis. She’s finding the situation a bit disorientating. B: 我好羨慕你朋友喔，我很想在家工作。 A: 不能每天跟同事見面，他並不介意。可是他偶爾還是會想念辦公室充滿活力的氣氛，可以跟大家社交。可是現在這種情況對他太太來說比較難熬。 B: 為甚麼？他太太不喜歡他一天到晚都在家晃來晃去？ A: 不是，他太太自己也有工作，而且有很多國際客戶，以前常常出國。現在這種情況讓她覺得有點無所適從。 （Paul Cooper, Taipei Times／台北時報林俐凱譯） English