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What animal can’t recognize itself in a mirror?

The ability to recognize oneself in a mirror is an interesting cognitive capability that appears to be limited to only a few animal species. Researchers have conducted mirror self-recognition tests on different animals to try to determine which ones possess this ability. The test is simple – an animal is marked surreptitiously with an odorless dye and then presented with a mirror. If the animal reacts to the mark in the mirror by touching its own body, it demonstrates that it recognizes that the image in the mirror is itself. This shows an awareness of self that was previously thought to only be possessed by humans. However, over the years, a select few animal species have passed this test. At the same time, many animals have failed, showing no signs that they understand that it is their own reflection looking back at them in the mirror. This raises an interesting question – what animals cannot recognize themselves in a mirror?

Animals That Can Recognize Themselves in a Mirror

Before looking at animals that fail the mirror test, it is useful to review the animals that pass:

  • Chimpanzees
  • Orangutans
  • Gorillas
  • Bottlenose dolphins
  • Orcas
  • Elephants
  • European magpies

These species clearly demonstrate self-awareness by passing the mirror test. When marked with a colored dot and presented with a mirror, individuals of these species touch the dot on their own body, understanding the reflection is of themselves. This shows they have a sense of self.

Interestingly, our closest genetic relatives, the chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas, all pass the test. The other animals that pass are highly intelligent social species like dolphins, orcas, elephants, and magpies. This indicates a cognitive and self-awareness link between the passing animals. However, plenty of animals have taken the mirror test and failed.

Animals That Fail the Mirror Test

Many animal species do not pass the classic mirror mark test for self-recognition. Animals that fail the test include:

  • Monkeys
  • Lesser apes (siamangs, gibbons)
  • Dogs
  • Cats
  • Birds (apart from magpies)
  • Fish
  • Reptiles
  • Amphibians
  • Spiders
  • Insects

When provided a mirror, these animals treat their reflection as if it is another individual, rather than understanding it is themselves. They do not try to wipe off the surreptitious mark in the way the passing species do. This indicates they do not have the same self-concept and self-awareness the passing animals have.

Interestingly, our closest genetic relatives after great apes, the lesser apes like gibbons and siamangs, fail the mirror test. Monkeys, another relatively closely related primate group, also fail the test. This shows that self-recognition is not ubiquitous even among our closest animal relatives.

The fact that highly intelligent animal groups like dogs, cats, and many bird species fail indicates that intelligence alone does not determine whether an animal can be self-aware. Self-recognition appears limited to certain social species, with humans, great apes, elephants, dolphins, and orcas being the most prominent passers.

Why Some Animals Fail the Mirror Test

There are several possible reasons why most animal species fail the mirror test:

  • They may lack the cognitive capability for self-awareness
  • They may not understand the mirror’s properties
  • They may use different cues for self-recognition
  • They may not be motivated to react to the mark in the test conditions

For many animals like reptiles, fish, spiders, and insects, the first explanation is probably the most likely – they simply don’t have the cognitive development required for self-recognition. However, for more intelligent failing species like monkeys, cats, and dogs, the other explanations may play a role.

A number of researchers argue that negative results on the mirror test do not necessarily prove an animal lacks self-awareness. It may just indicate the experimental conditions are unsuitable for that particular species. Some animals may not understand mirrors, while others may rely more on scent than visual marks for self-recognition. There are ongoing efforts to develop more appropriate tests of self-awareness in animals.

Critiques of the Mirror Test

While the mirror test for self-awareness is ingenious in its simplicity, many researchers have critiqued it over the years:

  • It relies on vision and the ability to recognize markings visually
  • It does not take into account other sensory cues animals may use
  • It requires understanding the properties of mirrors/reflections
  • It relies on animals making a connection between their sense of self and the reflection
  • It may not motivate reactions in less tactile-grooming focused animals
  • It focuses on a narrow definition of self-awareness

For these reasons, the mirror test may fail to identify self-awareness in many animals. Some researchers argue we need a broader set of tests looking at other aspects of self-awareness. Suggestions include tests of theory of mind, ability to plan for and think about the future, capacity for metacognition, and understanding of death. Developing rigorous tests for these complex concepts is challenging, but remains an area of active research.

Animals That Show Limited Mirror Self-Recognition

While many animals completely fail the mirror test, others show some indications of self-recognition, suggesting partial or limited self-awareness:

  • Bonobos and gorillas – young individuals fail but pass after reaching maturity
  • Killer whales – pass modified mark test but fail traditional test
  • Ants – pass modified mark test using chemical cues
  • Cleaner fish – some individuals learn to use mirror while others do not

The self-recognition seen in mature but not juvenile individuals shows this ability can develop over time, even in species that ultimately pass the test. Differences between individuals also demonstrate levels of self-awareness can vary within a species. While not conclusive, partial responses hint at the beginnings of self-recognition in some animals.

What Attributes May Contribute to Self-Awareness?

Reviewing the animals that exhibit self-directed behaviors in response to a mirror provides some clues as to what traits may contribute to the capacity for self-recognition:

  • Large brain size and advanced cognitive abilities
  • Complex social interactions within species
  • Understanding of visual cues and optics (for mirror test specifically)
  • Self-grooming behaviors and capacity for tactile investigation
  • Ability for quick adaptation to novel stimuli

Animal groups that show evidence of self-recognition tend to have larger, more developed brains as well as engaging in more complex social behaviors. Intelligence alone does not appear sufficient, as highly intelligent animals can still fail the test. But advanced cognition in combination with strong social bonding seems to be a recurring theme. Self-grooming also provides an opportunity to observe the mark placed during mirror tests. However, even some grooming-focused species fail, showing that multiple factors are likely at play. While the precise requirements remain unknown, it appears a blend of intelligence, social complexity, sensory abilities, and adaptable behaviors may enable self-awareness.


In summary:

  • Only a few animal species definitively pass the classic mirror test for self-recognition
  • Chimpanzees, orangutans, dolphins, elephants, and magpies are among the few passing species
  • Most animal groups, including monkeys, dogs, cats, and many birds, fail the mirror test
  • Failing the test does not necessarily mean an animal lacks self-awareness, as the test has limitations
  • Partial results in bonobos, killer whales, and fish demonstrate the beginnings of self-recognition
  • Advanced cognition and complex social behaviors seem to be common traits among animals with self-awareness

While the mirror test provides insights into self-recognition, it has a number of flaws as a definitive test. Many researchers advocate for developing additional types of tests to fully determine self-awareness across different species. But so far, animals like dogs, monkeys, and the majority of animal species do not demonstrate convincing evidence of recognizing themselves in a mirror. Refining approaches for assessing self-awareness remains an interesting research challenge. Discovering more about what enables an animal to have a sense of self will shed light on the evolution and development of cognition and social awareness.