Mirror-Image Stimulation Study

23rd August 2017

Self-awareness among animals is an interesting and controversial topic in the scientific community. To indicate an animal’s self-recognition in a scientific sense, psychologist Gordon Gallup Jr. developed the “mirror self-recognition test” (MSR), that includes placing a visual marking on the animal’s body and comparing it’s behaviour with and without the mark. This method should show if an animal recognizes its own reflection opposed to falsely recognizing the presence of another individual. Only a few animals passed this mirror self-recognition test. Several studies proved self-recognition among the five species of great apes, some monkeys, dolphins, orcas, elephants and even magpies. The ability to recognize your reflection is primarily related to intelligence. However, there are some critics on the mirror test. For example it is difficult to draw conclusions from the observed animal’s behaviour. What does it mean if the animal shows aggressive or interactive behaviour at first, but then loses interest and leaves? Did it realize that it was its own reflection or did it give up on his confusion of its twin being in an unreachable alternate universe? Also, failing the test doesn’t automatically imply self-unawareness.

Mark Fernley from Untamed Photography and myself, Wouter van Kootwijk, as an intern wanted to bring the mirror test to practice in the lowland Peruvian Amazon, and hopefully get some footage of big cats or other mammals looking at a mirror. This project includes wild animals, and is therefore not completely scientifically correct, because it is not possible to place a marking on the animal’s body. Nevertheless it is promising to get footage of wild animals looking at their reflection and observing their behaviour. Moreover, there is very little footage of wild big cats encountering a mirror worldwide and, most probably, none from the Madre de Dios region in Peru.

The first location for this project was going to be a trail next to the Tambopata River. Such a project requires a lot of preparation since it is hard to bring a mirror big enough for a jaguar, for instance, to a desolated place in the rainforest. We bought two wooden boards and poles to construct a frame. For transportation reasons, Mark and I chose to attach multiple smaller mirrors to each board, resulting in two big sturdy 1,5 x 1,5m mirrors. The journey with 4×4’s and boats, and carrying the wood and mirrors in to the rainforest took about 2 days and a lot of hard work. We decided to place the mirrors next to manmade trails because wildlife tends to use these trails a lot, as it is easier for them to hunt and make their way through the jungle. After finishing setting up the mirrors, we placed two camera traps next to each mirror, facing from a different angles. The only thing that remained was to wait for animals to come to the mirrors and for the experiment to begin.

After more or less two weeks, we were able to check the camera traps and couldn’t believe our eyes when we got footage of a male interacting with the mirror and staying in around it for around half an hour.

The jaguar’s behaviour captured by our camera traps
It was at 00:04 that a Male Jaguar (Panthera onca) discovered the mirror and firstly inspects it from the side without seeing his reflection. Then, when seeing his reflection, he started making vocal noises and showing his teeth. He continued investigating “the other jaguar” and flicked his tail frequently. Most of the time, he brought his head as close to the mirror as possible. After a few minutes, light-striking actions could be observed and the jaguar marked his territory left of the mirror, by scraping his claws on the ground. Thereafter, he became more aggressive as he forcefully stroked the mirror and flicked his tail in frustration. He clearly walks around to the back of the mirror to look for what he seemed to believe was another individual. The next moment, playful interaction changed to increasingly aggressive behaviour. Interestingly, the jaguar stood up on his hind legs and took a powerful swipe at the mirror resulting in cracking the top left hand corner. When he calmed down, he rubbed his head on the mirror a few times. After that, the jaguar sat down in front of the mirror. During that time we observed his sociable behaviour with his reflection. Suddenly, he showed even more aggressive behaviour by attacking the mirror 2 times in a few seconds. Later he was obviously still confused because seeing his reflection shocked him again. For quite a while he sat down on the side so that he could see half of his reflection while also looking behind the mirror. After sitting down, he suddenly got really interactive again, as he showed a burst of what seemed to be a territorial display. Unfortunately, at the end, he bumped our camera and the mirror was no longer in frame. This kept us from seeing him strike the mirror in the middle and break it even more. Before he left, we observed the jaguar dragging a branch through the frame and in front of the mirror, which was interesting turn of events behaviour. Perhaps this was an attempt to get a reaction out of “the other cat” by luring it in with a play object. This was a fascinating 30 minutes with dramatic behaviour changes from a Panthera onca.

Written by Wouter van Kootwijk and Paul Kriedemann.

Story written by Mark Fernley