August 24, 2008 in Nation/World

Magpies recognize themselves in mirror

Researches used dots to test birds’ reactions
By Mary Engel Los Angeles Times

Changing brains

The findings, published this week in the online journal PLoS, were notable as an example of “convergent evolution,” the development of similar traits in organisms with different ancestries.

Babies love mirrors. But not until the age of 2 years do toddlers make the connection between the baby in the mirror and themselves. Recognizing ourselves in a mirror is one of the traits that make humans, well, human.

Now it appears that self-recognition also makes magpies magpies. Best known for stealing shiny objects, the black-and-white magpie is the first bird to join a short list of mammals shown to share this trait: humans, chimpanzees, dolphins and elephants.

German psychologists Helmut Prior of Goethe University in Frankfurt, and Ariane Schwarz and Onur Gunturkun of Ruhr University-Bochum put European magpies through the classic “mark” test, the same test used on humans and other mammals.

Researchers marked the throats of five magpies where they couldn’t see with either brightly colored dots or black dots.

In a series of tests, each bird – Gerti, Goldie, Harvey, Lilly and Schatzi – was either placed in a cage with a mirror or in a cage with a nonreflective plate.

Harvey and Lilly ignored the mirrors; like some humans, they apparently didn’t care how they looked. But Gerti, Goldie and Schatzi, when confronted by their refections, attempted to peck and scratch at their brightly colored dots.

The birds largely ignored the black dot, which blended into their black feathers, showing that they weren’t merely responding to how the dots felt or smelled.

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