Asian Elephants Recognize Their Reflections

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Written By Animalcognition

Think Elephants International1 recently launched “Oh, Behave!”, a video series that features research on the behavior and cognition of elephants, as well as other members of the animal kingdom. Check out one of these videos below to learn about how Asian elephants can recognize themselves in mirrors. Also, be on the lookout for more videos in the series at TEI’s “Oh, Behave!” Youtube channel.

Joshua M. Plotnik, the founder of Think Elephants International, is a researcher of animal intelligence, with published work on mirror self-recognition in Asian elephants. In one of his past studies2, he administered the “mirror test” to three Asian elephants. This is a test that was designed by psychologist Gordon Gallup Jr. to determine whether or not animals could recognize that the image they saw in the mirrors was of themselves.3 During the test, researchers will place a colored marking on the animal’s body, then note the animal’s reaction to the marking. Generally, if animals respond by touching the marking or trying to remove it, this is considered as a hallmark of self-awareness.

The mirror test is used widely to test the self-recognition abilities of various species, though there are some problems it does not address. For example, some animals who rely more heavily on non-visual senses, such as scent, may not be effectively tested based on the sight of their reflection alone.4 Additionally, certain animals may find the markings placed on their bodies to be irrelevant. They might be aware of the markings, but simply have no interest in manipulating them. Plotnik has raised this issue, stating “The mark test can be difficult to apply across species because it assumes that a particular animal will be interested in something weird on their body. Primates are interested in such things—we’re groomers. But elephants are different. They’re huge and they’re used to putting things on, not taking things off of their bodies, like mud and dirt.”5

The paper’s abstract:

Considered an indicator of self-awareness, mirror self-recognition (MSR) has long seemed limited to humans and apes. In both phylogeny and human ontogeny, MSR is thought to correlate with higher forms of empathy and altruistic behavior. Apart from humans and apes, dolphins and elephants are also known for such capacities. After the recent discovery of MSR in dolphins (Tursiops truncatus), elephants thus were the next logical candidate species.

We exposed three Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) to a large mirror to investigate their responses. Animals that possess MSR typically progress through four stages of behavior when facing a mirror: (i) social responses, (ii) physical inspection (e.g., looking behind the mirror), (iii) repetitive mirror-testing behavior, and (iv) realization of seeing themselves. Visible marks and invisible sham-marks were applied to the elephants’ heads to test whether they would pass the litmus “mark test” for MSR in which an individual spontaneously uses a mirror to touch an otherwise imperceptible mark on its own body. Here, we report a successful MSR elephant study and report striking parallels in the progression of responses to mirrors among apes, dolphins, and elephants. These parallels suggest convergent cognitive evolution most likely related to complex sociality and cooperation.


This article was written by Amanda Pachniewska, founder & editor of


Photo: Asiatic Elephant, Sirkaanth Sekar

1 – Think Elephants International

2 – Joshua M. Plotnik, Frans De Waal, Diana Reiss
Self-recognition in an Asian elephant
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America

3 – Gordon G. Gallup Jr.
Chimpanzees: Self-Recognition

4 – Stanley Coren
How Dogs Think: Understanding the Canine Mind

5- Kids (and Animals) Who Fail Classic Mirror Tests May Still Have Sense of Self
Scientific American