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Humans have been handing mirrors to animals since at least the early 1800s, when a young Charles Darwin proffered a polished glass to a pair of orangutans at the London Zoo. “Both were astonished beyond measure at looking glass, looked at it every way, sideways, & with most steady surprise,” Darwin wrote in his notebook. More than a century later, psychologist Gordon G. Gallup codified what became known as the mirror test, when in 1970 he demonstrated that chimpanzees could recognize their own reflections. Only a handful of other animals have passed the mirror test: apes, dolphins, orcas, Eurasian magpies and an Asian elephant named Happy.
“There are many camps that argue about what this all means,” Joshua Plotnik, a visiting psychology professor at the City University of New York's Hunter College and founder of the nonprofit Think Elephants International, told The Washington Post. Some scientists view a successful mirror test as a sign that animals have self-awareness, linked to complex concepts like empathy. And if an animal can't pass the test, well, then it simply can't be self-aware.
Plotnik, who worked on Happy's mirror test, took a more diplomatic approach. It is more likely, he said, that self-awareness exists on a continuum, with varying levels of animal understanding. What's more, for some species the mirror test simply is a bad exam — particularly for those that rely less on visual senses, unlike humans or magpies.