A recent study suggests that a small, unremarkable species called the cleaner wrasse has this capability to identify itself by looking at the mirror which has been used for decades as a gold standard measure of animal intelligence. Passing the test proves animals self-awareness qualities.
“These fish are fascinating in their breadth of cognitive abilities – and underappreciated,” said Alex Jordan, an evolutionary biologist at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Germany and the study’s senior author.
However the study was challenged by many before being finally published, “Some areas of the academic community seem fairly intent on fish not joining the pantheon of smart things because then their own animals lose their special place in the world,” said Jordan.
The cleaner wrasse originates in coral reefs. Previous research has revealed these fish have complex social lives, forming allegiances and enemies, making logical inferences about whether they will beat other fish in fights and showing a capacity for deception.
Talking about the test, the researchers placed a mirror on the fish in a location that could only be seen in a mirror reflection. At first, the fish behaved strangely trying to bite its own reflection but over the next few days, they stopped biting and started “behaving weirdly” in front of the mirror, swimming upside down, for instance, or doing repeated bursts of acceleration past the mirror.
According to the authors, the fish were “contingency testing” – to ensure their reflection did the same as a way of figuring out the function of the mirror. They were also seen attempting to remove the marks by scraping their body on hard surfaces after viewing themselves in the mirror.
It’s not that this proves fish are as smart as chimpanzees, but they can understand what the mirror does and use the mirror to see its own reflection.
It did not necessarily imply fish were self-aware, but the findings challenged the idea that animal intelligence follows a continuum, with chimpanzees at the top and fish, insects and reptiles at the bottom of the list.
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