Monkey Mirror: Test Part 01
Our cousins garden monkeys may be more like us
It haunts me, this photo. While a bit hazy, it’s a fortuitous snapshot: I didn’t even realize when taking it that it seemed to confirm what I suspected was happening.
We are lucky at home. A screen of trees rises beyond our small garden, mostly rooted in the grounds of a mansion with a private pond just across the alley. The trees dance a nice ballet when the breeze blows and we see cool birds like the Imperial Green Pigeon and the Crested Goshawk.
And every few days come the langurs. We usually hear them before we see them as they scream their ooh-oohs as they chase each other through the branches. They run on the roofs of houses all around us but rarely come to our property. We have a full size Labrador and also a fierce and fearless Golden Retriever, lovely sweetheart of a girl, who chews the fur of wriggling chipmunk puppies found fallen down the aisle, goes eyeball with cobras, and one night killed a civet cat intruder in a fight that destroyed our vegetable garden and then left the corpse on our doorstep to take advantage of when we woke up after hearing nothing of the dark struggle. How did she manage to get out of the doghouse?
But a certain day in November was different. A handful of langurs came to perch on the wall of our garden, reaching our lemon tree, then peeling and munching on the sour fruit. Maybe the dogs were sleeping. I pulled out the camera and started taking pictures from our back balcony. Then I started to notice something even more curious. There is a house and a garden between our garden and the alley mentioned above. This small garden is home to six good-sized trees that primates frequently congregate in, munching on snacks and watching us as we look back. One of these trees provides easy access to the top of an air conditioning unit, placed on a shelf just below some of the windows in this house.
That day, one, two or sometimes three simians spent prolonged interludes sitting on top of the AC unit, appearing to look out of the room windows. What could hold their interest? The house, owned by an elderly and gentlemanly national cricketer with grown children, has been uninhabited for some time now. There would be nothing to see in an upstairs room except stationary furniture and so on. How can it be so fascinating?
As I changed stations to take more photos, I noticed reflections of trees and sky in the windows. It struck me that the monkeys were looking at mirror images of themselves. I began to see these ghostly reflections. Pulling away as they leaned over and fidgeted, I had no idea until I reviewed the photos later that I had caught a langur licking its own reflection.
For fifty years now, scientists have been experimenting with the mirror self-recognition test (MSR). What they are looking for is if an animal is able to grasp that he sees himself in a mirror. If so, perhaps we can infer that he is aware of himself as himself.
You place one or more animals of a particular species in front of a mirror and watch what happens. In a typical first reaction, an animal thinks it has encountered another animal of its kind. He may scream aggressively or display other social behaviors. Most species never go beyond that. But some are starting to try to figure out what is going on.
The MSR literature describes the phases that can follow this first phase of social response. A second phase involves a physical investigation such as looking behind the mirror. A third phase involves carefully observed repetitive movements. Like in that mirror scene in the Marx Brothers movie “Duck Soup”, this appearance does everything I do exactly at the same time. This behavior is classified as level one in what is called “passing” the mirror test. The animal seems aware of itself as a self because it understands that it is observing itself.
Perhaps. For animals that reach phase three, scientists introduce a confirmation phase four, usually incorporated into the “spot” exercise. They place a visible point on a part of the animal’s body that it cannot normally see – its forehead, for example – and place it in front of the mirror. If the animal, seeing the stain in the mirror, then touches that stain on its own body, it must grasp that the image in the mirror is itself. This could be called level two when passing the mirror test. Scientists believe that an animal capable of understanding its own mirror image has self-awareness: “the ability to become the object of your own attention.”
Licking your own thoughtful tongue might sound like taking a self-administered version of the point test. On the other hand, it might be consistent with lower level one (behavioral phase three) of the four phase MSR progression. (This ghostly animal of my kind does precisely what I do exactly when I do it. What if …?) Besides, it might even align with the first phase of progression, where the animal behaves like itself. he was interacting with another animal, even though he was strange. . I couldn’t find any discussion of rigorous mirror testing with langurs.
Scientist Gordon Gallup designed the test one day while shaving in a mirror. Soon after, he observed chimpanzees using mirrors to groom themselves – cleaning their teeth, for example – and scrutinizing their genitals. To date, the consensus is that chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans, bottlenose dolphins and Asian elephants like those found in Sri Lanka clearly pass the mirror test. Scientists associate success on the test with high intelligence and social sophistication. Eurasian magpies represent the first non-mammals to pass. They try to remove colorful stickers from their feathers while looking at them in a mirror. It’s not that they can smell the stickers. They don’t try to suppress the invisible. Magpies are very intelligent, of course, especially for an animal without a neocortex.
As interesting as those who pass the test are those who don’t. Gorillas: not so much. Macaques and several other varieties of monkeys do not pass, nor do small monkeys: gibbons and siamangs. So if the langurs pass the test, they are hitting way above their weight. In a great documentary on the macaques of Polonnaruwa, the actress Tina Fey tells of a confrontation between a troop of them and a band of langurs. She denigrates the intelligence of the langur compared to its macaques. In this, it can be a little hasty. So far, at least five documentaries have focused on the Polonnaruwa macaques. Macaques are amazing and colorful sure, but could someone please aim a video camera at a few langurs for a while?
If the animal, seeing the stain in the mirror, then touches that stain on its own body, it must grasp that the image in the mirror is itself. This could be called level two when passing the mirror test
Self-awareness can go hand in hand with the recognition that other animals are themselves as well. This can promote “theory of mind”: the understanding that other animals have their own desires and intentions, as well as a clear understanding of what these might be. This can be correlated with generosity: benefit sharing and assistance in jeopardy.
While langurs can indeed “pass the test,” such considerations apparently force us to be more concerned with their well-being. Due to urbanization and habitat loss, the endemic Colombo subspecies, our own purple-faced langur, is listed as Critically Endangered.
A graduate of Harvard Law School, Mark Hager lives in Pelawatte with his family.