Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Magpies pass the mirror-test

According to a study published today in PLoS Biology the European magpie (Pica pica), has passed the mirror-test, a widely-used and venerable measure of self-awareness. The magpie thus joins a select group of organisms that have passed the test (including, the Asian elephant, dolphins and all the great apes) and, more importantly, is the first non-mammal to pass. The authors did a bunch of mirror-tests on the birds, but the most convincing involved marking the animal somewhere it could see only with a mirror (like in the picture, left) and then looking for spontaneous self-directed behavior. There are a bunch of videos clearly demonstrating self-awareness in the Supporting Information, I especially recommend having a look at video S5 (3.1mb wmv).

The most exciting bit of the abstract:
In apes, self-directed behavior in response to a mirror has been taken as evidence of self-recognition. We investigated mirror-induced behavior in the magpie, a songbird species from the crow family. As in apes, some individuals behaved in front of the mirror as if they were testing behavioral contingencies. When provided with a mark, magpies showed spontaneous mark-directed behavior. Our findings provide the first evidence of mirror self-recognition in a non-mammalian species. They suggest that essential components of human self-recognition have evolved independently in different vertebrate classes with a separate evolutionary history.
(Via: New Scientist).


  1. This really is very interesting, but I wonder how common it really is. Maybe we've only been looking for this behaviour in those animals we most often anthropomorphise, like elephants and primates, and will actually find it in hundreds of species like birds if we start looking.

  2. Hi... yeah, I agree that could be a problem. But we have tested hundreds of animals now and very view have passed. We have independent reasons to think birds are very clever, so it makes sense to mirror-test them.

    As always, more research is needed...

  3. haha shame, beauty spots clearly not seen as an asset in the magpie dating community.