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“Self-Aware” Fish Raise Questions About Animal Cognition

Self-awareness develops like an onion, building layer upon layer, rather than appearing all at once. Different animals with different lifestyles, need different levels of self-awareness.

JASON DALEY: ‘For the last few decades, researchers have used a technique called the mirror recognition test to study self-awareness in animals. Self-recognition, it’s believed, only occurs in animals with a little extra cognitive power, and thus far, studies have borne that out. While dozens of bright animals including monkey species, dogs, crows, and octopuses have failed to recognize themselves, others including primates like humans, chimps, orangutans, as well as dolphins, magpies, killer whales, and one Asiatic elephant have demonstrated self-awareness through the test, at least according to some interpretations.

But a new paper in the journal PLOS appears to show that a four-inch-long tropical fish species called Labroides dimidiatus, or the bluestreak cleaner wrasse, can also pass the test, calling into question just what self-awareness means about cognitive capacity… Alex Jordan, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute of Ornithology and the University of Konstanz in Germany,… says this does not mean the cleaner wrasse gets to join the pantheon of Earth’s smartest animals. “The fact that the cleaner wrasse passes the test doesn’t tell us they are as intelligent as a chimp”… Instead, he says, the test proves that at a minimum, the fish understands what the mirror does. It does not prove or disprove self-awareness…

Well-known primate researcher Frans de Waal disputes the interpretation. He also argues that the mirror-recognition test may be inadequate to assess consciousness in animals. It seems to test for a consciousness “Big Bang,” he writes, in which an animal is either self-aware or not self-aware, with no states in between. “What if self-awareness develops like an onion, building layer upon layer, rather than appearing all at once?” he writes. Different animals with different lifestyles, he says, need different levels of self-awareness. “Therefore, to explore self-awareness further, we should stop looking at responses to the mirror as the litmus test”.’ SOURCE…

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