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When the magpie looks in a mirror, it sees itself

When the magpie looks in a mirror, it sees itself

When the magpie looks in a mirror, it sees itself

Jeremy Hance,
August 20, 2008

Unlike Narcissus of Greek mythology—who upon seeing his reflection in water jumped in thinking it was another—magpies have proven they can recognize their own reflections. Until now, only a small number of primates (chimpanzees, pygmy chimps, and orangutans) have displayed this ability, making the magpie the first bird shown to recognize itself.

To test the magpie, psychologist Helmut Prior and his team attached red or yellow marks to the magpie that could only be seen by the bird in a mirror. When the mirror was placed in front of the magpie it made attempts at reaching the mark either with its beak or foot, proving that it matched the mirror-image with itself. Species that don’t recognize their selves will display various social behaviors as though faced with another of their kind.

The import of Prior’s study goes beyond understanding magpie intelligence. “By demonstrating self-recognition in the mirror by magpies, the present study shows that even the neural capacity for distinguishing self and others has evolved independently in the two vertebrate classes [i.e. birds and primates],” write the researchers. Therefore, the path to self-recognition has proven that evolution can follow similar paths in completely unrelated species, living in different habitats, and occupying separate niches.

The magpie is a member of the corvid family, including crows and ravens. This family of birds has shown remarkable evidence of high intelligence. Other species of corvids have displayed “tool use, episodic-like memory, and the ability to use one’s own experience in predicting the behavior of [the same species],” write the scientists.

The researchers note that brain size may be a key-factor in self-recognition. Magpies and other corvids have massive brains compared to their overall weight. For example, 31 percent of the European magpie’s body weight is its brain. For pigeons the number is 2 percent.

Helmut Prior, Ariane Shwarz, Onur Gunturkun (2008). Mirror-Induced Behavior in the Magpie (Pica pica): Evidence of Self-Recognition. Plos Biology, Volume 6, Issue 8.

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