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This Fish Has Challenged Our Theories of Self-awareness in Animals

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News

This Fish Has Challenged Our Theories of Self-awareness in Animals

A cleaner wrasse interacts with its reflection in a mirror placed on the outside of the aquarium glass. Note that the mirror itself cannot be seen in this photo because the aquarium glass itself becomes reflective at the viewing angle of the camera, according to Snell's law. This is not the case for the fish itself, which sees the aquarium glass as transparent because of its direct viewing angle. Credit: Alex Jordan
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The ability to perceive and recognize a reflected mirror image as self is considered a hallmark of cognition across species. Now researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Radolfzell, the University of Konstanz, and Osaka City University report that cleaner wrasse respond to their reflection and attempt to remove marks on its body during the mirror test. The finding suggests that fish possess far higher cognitive powers than previously thought, and ignites debate over how scientists assess the intelligence of animals that are so unlike humans.


To test for mirror self-recognition in fish, the researchers applied the classic ‘mark’ test to the cleaner wrasse (Labroides dimidiatus), a marine fish best known for its behavior of “cleaning” ectoparasites from client fish. The scientists placed a colored mark on fish in a location that can only be seen in a mirror reflection. In order to gain a ‘pass’, the test requires that the animal must touch or investigate the mark, which demonstrates perception of the reflected image as itself. This is a challenge for an animal such as a fish that lacks limbs and hands.


The researchers observed that fish attempted to remove the marks by scraping their bodies on hard surfaces after viewing themselves in the mirror. Fish never attempted to remove transparent marks in the presence of a mirror, or colored marks when no mirror was present—suggesting that marked fish were responding to the visual cue of seeing the mark on themselves in the mirror. Further, unmarked fish did not attempt to remove marks from themselves when interacting with a marked fish across a clear divider, nor did they attempt to remove marks placed on the mirror itself. This indicates that fish were not innately reacting to a mark resembling an ectoparasite anywhere in the environment, for instance due to hard-wired feeding responses.


To the scientists the results provide clear evidence of behaviors that appear to pass through all phases of the mirror test. However, the interpretation of what these mean is less clear: Does a ‘pass’ mark in the mirror test demonstrate that fish possess self-awareness—a cognitive trait thought only to be present in primates and some other mammals? Or, can the mirror test be solved by very different cognitive processes than previously thought?


“The behaviors we observe leave little doubt that this fish behaviorally fulfills all criteria of the mirror test as originally laid out. What is less clear is whether these behaviors should be considered as evidence that fish are self-aware—even though in the past these same behaviors have been interpreted as self-awareness in so many other animals,” says Alex Jordan, Principal Investigator at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology and the University of Konstanz.


Depending on one’s position, one might reject the interpretation that these behaviors in a fish satisfy passing the test at all. However, this would invalidate the test as a whole as the fish’s behaviors are functionally similar to those of other species that have passed the test. On the other extreme, one might interpret these results as evidence that fish are self-aware. “Personally, I find the most parsimonious interpretation to be that these fish do pass the test as given, but this doesn’t mean they are self-aware. Rather they come to recognize the reflection as a representation of their own bodies without the involvement of self-consciousness. Given this, we should critically evaluate whether the mark test remains the gold-standard for awareness testing in animals,” says Jordan.

This article has been republished from materials provided by the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft. Note: material may have been edited for length and content. For further information, please contact the cited source.

Reference: Kohda, M., Hotta, T., Takeyama, T., Awata, S., Tanaka, H., Asai, J., & Jordan, A. L. (2019). If a fish can pass the mark test, what are the implications for consciousness and self-awareness testing in animals? PLOS Biology, 17(2), e3000021. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.3000021

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