Evidence from a mirror test on wild penguins shows they may be self-aware

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Some types of wild penguins may exhibit some level of self-awareness, according to a trio of researchers: one with the Indian government’s Ministry of Earth Sciences; another with the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay; and the third with the National Institute of Advanced Studies, also in India.

An article by Prabir Ghosh Dastidar, Azizuddin Khan, and Anindya Sinha describes their investigation into the behavior of Adélie penguins in Antarctica and what they discovered.

Prior studies have indicated that self-awareness is uncommon in the animal world; to this date, it has only been discovered in a few number of mammals, certain birds, and perhaps some fish. It is simple to test in people, but requires considerable effort in animals. The mirror test, which allows test subjects to see themselves in a mirror while researchers observe their reactions, has been utilized in the majority of investigations seeking for it.

In order to demonstrate self-awareness, individuals frequently touch some aspect of themselves that they can only see in the mirror, such a red mark on their face. In this new study, the researchers investigated if penguins may be conscious of themselves. They traveled to Svenner Island in eastern Antarctica to watch the behavior of Adélie penguins in response to reflections of themselves in mirrors in order to understand more.

Four studies were carried out by the researchers. The first consisted of just putting some mirrors nearby the penguins and observing how certain penguins would glance down at them at random. In the second, some of the penguins were enclosed in a cardboard corral that guided them toward mirrors at the edges of the enclosure. The third included applying tiny stickers on mirrors such that, when viewed, they looked to be on the penguin who was gazing at them. In the last experiment, penguins placed with bib were chosen at random and put in front of a mirror.

The first experiment had no results, which was really a discovery as many animals fail this test when they mistake the object in the mirror for another member of their species and react appropriately. The penguins in the second trial made movements that suggested they could be inspecting themselves. Additionally, the penguins became angry when they looked at the stickers on the mirrors and aggressively sought to take them off. But when they noticed that they were wearing a little bib, they made absolutely no reaction.

The researchers acknowledge that their findings are somewhat confusing but point out that when all of the evidence is considered, it appears that the penguins did display some kind of self-awareness.


Prabir Ghosh Dastidar et al, Possible Self-awareness in Wild Adélie PenguinsPygoscelis adeliae, bioRxiv (2022). DOI: 10.1101/2022.11.04.515260