Getting out of One's Own Way

Left: An elephant passes sandals to an experimenter while a second person tugs on the mat in a control condition. Right: An elephant picks up the stick attached to the mat and tries to pass it to the experimenter in the test condition.

Dan Brubaker

Only a handful of species besides humans, including apes, dolphins, magpies, and elephants, have passed the mirror selfrecognition test, the traditional assessment of self-awareness. However, this test has its limitations and may be biased toward species with better vision.

To design a complementary test of self-awareness, comparative psychologists Rachel Dale and Joshua M. Plotnik of Think Elephants International adapted an experiment used with young human children in which subjects must recognize their own bodies in relation to their environment. The toddlers had to step onto a mat affixed to a shopping cart and then push the cart toward someone, but they couldn’t do so without first removing themselves from the mat.

In Dale and Plotnick’s modified version of the task, twelve Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) were required to step onto a rubber mat, then pick up and hand over a stick to someone standing in front of them. However, in the test condition, the stick was tied to the mat via a rope too short for the animals to complete the task without first stepping to the side of the mat. The research team also included two control scenarios: one in which the stick was not attached to the mat and another in which the elephant passed a pair of shoes from right to left while someone pulled on the mat. The latter condition tested the alternative that the pulling motion at the elephants’ feet was uncomfortable, prompting them to step off the mat. Each scenario was tested in four sessions of a dozen trials each and in varying order among the individuals. Right away, the elephants appeared to realize that their bodies prevented them from successfully passing the stick connected to the mat. “Six elephants got off the mat in order to exchange the stick in the very first trial!” said Plotnik. Overall, elephants stepped off the mats much more often in the test scenario than in either control set-up.

The researchers hope to see this test of selfawareness applied to other species. They would also like our improved understanding of elephants’ cognitive capacity to contribute to conservation solutions for wild elephants facing extinction. (Scientific Reports)