Scientists have long argued that self-awareness is a rare phenomenon in the animal kingdom, with only a few mammals, some birds, and some fish appearing to have it. However, according to a new study published on the bioRxiv preprint server, some species of wild penguins, such as the Adélie penguins from Antarctica, may also have a certain degree of self-awareness.
While in humans, self-awareness is an easy thing to test, in animals it is much more complicated to reliably assess this capacity. Most studies aiming to test the presence of self-awareness in animals have used the so-called “mirror test,” in which animals are allowed to see themselves in a mirror while scientists observe their reactions. For instance, if animals touch a red mark on their own face that they can only see in the mirror, experts usually assume they have a degree of self-awareness.
In the new study, the researchers traveled to Svenner Island in eastern Antarctica to observe the behavior of Adélie penguins, and conducted four experiments. In the first one, they placed several mirrors on the ground nearby the penguins and observed the animals’ behaviors while looking down at the mirrors. The second experiment involved constructing a cardboard corral around some of the penguins which directed them toward mirrors at the ends of an enclosure, while the third involved placing small stickers on the mirrors that, when viewed, appeared as if they were on the penguins looking at them. In a final experiment, they placed a bib on random penguins in front of a mirror and observed their reactions.
In the first experiments, the scientists detected no response, which was actually an important finding, since many animals fail such a test, believing that the creatures they are seeing in the mirror are actually conspecifics and respond accordingly. While in the second experiment, the penguins moved in ways that suggested they might be examining themselves, in the third one, they became agitated when looking at mirrors with stickers on them and actively tried to remove the stickers. However, they did not respond at all when seeing themselves wearing a bib. Although the results remain rather ambiguous, the researchers argued that they may suggest the presence of at least some degree of self-awareness in penguins.
“Future studies, integrating the socioecology and cognitive ethology of penguins, may provide insights into whether our experimental paradigms could provide evidence to confirm the presence of self-awareness and even of self-recognition in this species and examine whether the observed social awareness may have evolved due to the social needs of individual penguins to engage in cooperative behavior with conspecific individuals, while maintaining their independent decision-making capacities, throughout their communal lives,” the authors concluded.
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