summary: Chickens, often thought of as simple-minded, are now at the forefront of studies on self-awareness.
The researchers note that roosters are likely to recognize themselves in mirrors. However, the success of this recognition depends largely on experimental conditions.
The study challenges traditional tests of self-awareness in animals and highlights the need for more environmentally relevant experiments.
- Roosters may be able to recognize themselves in the mirror, a possible indicator of self-awareness.
- The classic “mark test” of self-recognition may not be applicable to all animals, and the context of the test is of great importance.
- Roosters typically make alarm calls in the presence of a conspecific when threatened by a predator, but this behavior changes when they encounter their own reflex.
source: University of Bonn
Scratching, gurgling, laying eggs – that’s it? Anyone involved in raising chickens knows that animals are capable of so much more than that.
Researchers at the Universities of Bonn and Bochum, in collaboration with the MSH Hamburg Medical School, have found evidence that roosters can recognize themselves in a mirror.
However, whether this works depends on the experimental conditions, a finding that goes beyond just experience with roosters, and could also be of interest for other animal species.
The study is now published in the journal One plus.
“The ability of animals to recognize themselves and thus have self-awareness is one of the key questions in behavioral research,” says doctoral student Sonja Helmacher, who with colleague Dr. Inga Tieman has been conducting scientific investigations into chicken rearing for years at MIT. Institute of Agricultural Engineering, University of Bonn.
The idea of experimenting with chickens in front of a mirror came to the scientists together with Prof. Dr. Onur Gunturkun from the Department of Biopsychology at the Ruhr University Bochum.
A common test for self-recognition in front of a mirror is the so-called “marker test.” For example, a colored mark is placed on the animal’s head that an individual can only recognize in front of a mirror.
If the animal begins to explore the marked area on its body in front of the mirror, this is evidence that it has recognized its reflection as itself.
However, this test does not always work. Some animals thought to be self-aware do not pay attention to the mirror. Maybe because they feel uncomfortable in the “artificial” experimental environment?
Adapt the experience to environmentally relevant behavior
“Our goal was to perform the mirror test in an environment that is better adapted to the ecologically relevant behavior of chickens,” says Dr. Inga Tieman. Professor Onur Gunturkun came up with the idea of using the natural behavior of feathered birds in the experiment:
“Some chickens, especially roosters, warn their privies with special calls when a predator appears – such as a bird of prey or a fox.”
On the other hand, if roosters encounter a predator alone, they usually remain silent to avoid attracting the predator’s own attention and becoming a victim.
“The alarm call is the ideal behavior that can be integrated into a test of self-awareness that is more relevant to the environment,” says the biopsychologist from the University of Bochum.
The research team first wanted to investigate whether roosters actually issue alarm calls in the presence of a conspecific and remain silent when alone.
For this purpose, researchers from the University of Bonn set up a testing ground on the Frankenfurst campus. There was a net separating the two parts through which the roosters could see each other. A bird of prey was then dropped onto the ceiling of one room.
The researchers tested 58 roosters. To statistically validate the results, the experiment was repeated three times with each rooster. In total, the roosters made 77 alarm calls in the presence of a conspecific, but only 17 when they were alone.
“Some animals are bolder, others are more fearful,” says Sonja Helmacher.
“But the result shows that most roosters do alert in the presence of a conspecific predator when there is a predator in sight.”
The next step was to place a mirror between the two parts instead of the mesh. How did the roosters react in the presence of their mirror image and the bird of prey? Again, the test was performed three times with each animal. In total, only 25 alarm calls were generated during 174 trials.
“This proves that the roosters did not mistake their reflection for something specific,” says Sonia Hellmacher.
The result is an indication that the roosters may have recognized themselves in their mirror images. However, there is at least a theoretical possibility that the animals saw in their image a strange animal that mimicked their behavior, and thus the alarm call was omitted.
“Further investigations are still needed here,” adds Inga Tieman. For comparison, the team also performed the classic mark test: here, the roosters showed no behavior indicating that they recognized themselves in the mirror.
The research team sees clear evidence in the results that the classic mirror mark test yields more reliable results when a species’ behavior is embedded in an ecologically relevant context.
“In a classic situation, the rooster may not show self-esteem,” says Onur Gunturkun. “But when threatened by a predator, it becomes clear that his reflection is not another rooster, but himself.”
This approach could also be suitable for other animal species. More research on self-recognition and self-awareness in animals is also an important basis for discussion about animal rights and animal welfare, the researchers said.
About Self-Awareness Research News
Original search: Open access.
“Roosters Don’t Warn the Bird in the Mirror: The Cognitive Ecology of Self-Recognition in the Mirror“By Sonia Hellmacher et al. One plus
Roosters Don’t Warn the Bird in the Mirror: The Cognitive Ecology of Self-Recognition in the Mirror
Touching a mark on your body when seeing that mark in a mirror is an association with self-consciousness and appears to be limited to great apes and a few other species. However, this model often produces false negative results and may fragment the gradual developmental transition of self-recognition.
We hypothesized that this ability would be more widespread if environmentally tested and developed such a procedure for an unlikely candidate: chickens (Gallus gallus domestica).
Roosters warn conspecifics when they see an aerial predator, but not when they are alone. By exploiting this natural behaviour, we tested individual roosters alone, with another male, or with a mirror while the silhouette of a hawk soars above them.
Roosters make alarm calls mainly in the presence of another person, but not when they are alone or when they see themselves in the mirror. In contrast, our birds failed the classic mirror test. Thus, chickens may recognize their reflection as their own, strikingly illustrating how much perception is environmentally rooted.
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