Precocious development of self-awareness in dolphins
Mirror-self recognition (MSR) is a behavioral indicator of self-awareness in young children and only a few other species, including the great apes, dolphins, elephants and magpies. The emergence of self-awareness in children typically occurs during the second year and has been correlated with sensorimotor development and growing social and self-awareness. Comparative studies of MSR in chimpanzees report that the onset of this ability occurs between 2 years 4 months and 3 years 9 months of age. Studies of wild and captive bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) have reported precocious sensorimotor and social awareness during the first weeks of life, but no comparative MSR research has been conducted with this species. We exposed two young bottlenose dolphins to an underwater mirror and analyzed video recordings of their behavioral responses over a 3-year period. Here we report that both dolphins exhibited MSR, indicated by self-directed behavior at the mirror, at ages earlier than generally reported for children and at ages much earlier than reported for chimpanzees. The early onset of MSR in young dolphins occurs in parallel with their advanced sensorimotor development, complex and reciprocal social interactions, and growing social awareness. Both dolphins passed subsequent mark tests at ages comparable with children. Thus, our findings indicate that dolphins exhibit self-awareness at a mirror at a younger age than previously reported for children or other species tested.