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The self-recognition of an African elephant

Immanuel Birmelin
International Elephant and Rhino Conservation and Research Symposium

It`s generally admitted that apes, wales and dolphins are able to recognize themselfes in a mirror. Joshua M. Plotnik, Frans B. M. de Waal and Diana Reiss proofed 2006, that even Asian elephants recognize themselves in mirrors. As far as I know, African elephants were never tested, as they`re not as domesticated as Asian elephants.

We tested the elephantcow Mala at a elephant-farm in Platschow/Germany, using a 3mx4m plastic mirror. During the first series of experiments, Mala attacked the mirror and was only held back by her animal-trainer Sonny Francello. In this first series Mala was not able to recognize herself in the mirror. In the second series, three months later, Mala showed all typical stages of behavior and recognized hersef in the mirror. The self-recognition of an African elephant

To proof, that Mala recognizes herself in the mirror, we made the marker test: A plastic banana was stuck the head of the elephant. As Mala didn`t notice the banana for 20 minutes, we were sure, that there was no reason for her, to grab for the banana. Then she was confrontated with the mirror immediateley and picked the banana from her own head instead of grabbing for the banana in the mirror. Her whole behavior shows, that she recognizes the mirror image as herself. The ability to recognize herself reveals that Mala has an idea of her identity, which is supposed to correlate with higher forms of empathy and altruistic behavior.

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