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See Inside December 2008/January 2009

Magpies Recognize Their Faces in the Mirror

Magpies join the elite group of animals that can recognize their reflection

When you look in the mirror, you know you are seeing yourself. Your dog, on the other hand, thinks its reflection is a fellow canine (if anything). So far scientists thought this lack of self-recognition was ubiquitous in the animal kingdom—with the exception of apes, elephants and dolphins. But a new study presents evidence that self-recognition has also evolved in a bird species.

Helmut Prior of Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany, and his team tagged magpies with a brightly colored mark below their beaks, where the birds could not see it directly. When the magpies looked in the mirror, some of them tried to reach the mark with their beak or touch it with their foot, which shows that they recognized their own mirror image, the researchers say.

The evolutionary lines of birds and mammals split apart about 300 million years ago from our common ancestors, which were small-brained reptiles. Such a long separation suggests that self-recognition emerged independently at least two times, Prior says. The findings also provide a challenge for scientists trying to identify regions of the brain associated with consciousness and self-recognition by looking at brain structures that are unique to higher mammals, he explains: “Obviously, self-recognition is possible with completely different brains.” [For more on animal intelligence, see “One World, Many Minds”.]

Note: This story was originally printed with the title, "A Bird in the Mirror".

This article was originally published with the title "A Bird in the Mirror."

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