19 August 2008

Magpie, know thyself

Photo by p_adermark.
New in PLoS Biology: European Magpies can recognize their own reflection in a mirror. Self-recognition in a mirror is used as a test of self-awareness in non-human animals, so this suggests that magpies, and maybe other birds, are conscious of themselves as separate from other members of their species.

To see if a magpie knew that a reflection in a mirror was an image of itself, the study's authors glued a colored paper spot to the feathers below a magpie's "chin", then allowed the bird to see itself in a mirror. The magpie would have no way of seeing the spot except in the mirror, so if it reacted to the mirror image by trying to remove the mark from itself, it can be said to have recognized its own reflection. (And, presumably, thought something like "What the heck is this on my chin?")

The supplementary materials for the paper include a number of videos of the test in action: here's a magpie reaching for the mark with its foot [.wmv file], and here's one using its beak [.wmv file]. Black spots, which wouldn't be visible against the birds' black chin-feathers, served as a control.

This is the first time that a non-mammal has been shown to be self-aware, and (in this one regard, anyway) it means magpies are smarter than monkeys. (Great apes recognize themselves in mirror tests; monkeys don't.) It's also more evidence that what we think of as consciousness, that nebulous quality that separates humans from the rest of the animal kingdom, isn't as clear-cut as we used to think. Human intelligence most likely evolved by the incremental assembly of different mental skills - including self-awareness, but also tool use and language - that we see in other smart animals.


Helmut Prior, Ariane Schwarz, Onur Güntürkün, Frans de Waal (2008). Mirror-Induced Behavior in the Magpie (Pica pica): Evidence of Self-Recognition PLoS Biology, 6 (8) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0060202


  1. Being a mennonite and an evolutionary biologist, I'm wondering what your thoughts are regarding the soul. I've heard atheists suggest that the soul is merely a function of the mind and a part of the soul is simply being self-aware. I know your Christian so I assume you believe the soul is separate from the mind and body. If that's the case, then do animals also have souls?

  2. That's a tricky question, Krista, and one that probably deserves a whole post. I think that what we're learning about the mental abilities of "lower" animals, as with this study, increasingly leads to the conclusion that there's no bright line between human intelligence and non-human intelligence. And I don't know how to define the concept of "soul" without reference to intelligence. So I guess the flip answer (which I'm coming up with as I type!) is that either every living thing has a soul of some sort, or none of us do.

  3. Thanks for your answer. I know it's a tough questions, which is probably why I find it so fascinating.