Magpies reflect on a newly discovered intellectual prowess

A A A

They may have a brain the size of a pea but magpies have been shown to possess the intellectual prowess necessary to recognise themselves in a mirror – a feat that, until now, has only been seen in humans, apes, elephants and dolphins.

Self-recognition is considered to be one of the hallmarks of a highly evolved brain so it has come as a surprise to find that the magpie can see its own reflection for what it is. A study has shown that magpies can recognise themselves in a mirror as well as any chimpanzee, despite being separated from the mammals and their highly developed brain by some 300 million years of evolutionary history.

The findings may come as no surprise to anyone who has watched a magpie's seemingly sly and arrogant behaviour in the garden, where they frequently raid the nests of smaller birds and are infamous "thieves" that steal shiny objects to adorn their own nests.

Helmut Prior, of Goethe University in Frankfurt, said the findings demonstrate that the ability to recognise a reflection as yourself, rather than seeing it as another individual, does not necessarily depend on the sophisticated mammalian brain. "Our findings provide the first evidence of mirror self-recognition in a non-mammalian species," he said. "They suggest that essential components of human self-recognition have evolved independently in different vertebrate classes with a separate evolutionary history."

Dr Prior and colleagues from Ruhr-University Bochum tested the magpie's self-discriminatory powers in experiments involving five magpies marked with coloured dots on their throats, which could only be seen by looking at their own reflection.

Two of the magpies – named Gertie and Goldie – quickly learnt that the image they could see in a mirror placed in their cages was of themselves and tried to dislodge the coloured dots they could see on their throat feathers.

The "mark test" is frequently used as an indicator of self-recognition in animals and young children as, if done properly, there is only one way the individual can see that the mark is on themselves rather than someone else.

"A crucial step in the emergence of self-recognition is the understanding that one's own mirror reflection does not represent another individual but oneself," said Dr Prior, whose study is published in the online journal Public Library of Science (PLos) Biology. "Mirror self-recognition has been shown in apes and, recently, in dolphins and elephants ... Using the mark test we obtained evidence for mirror self-recognition in the European magpie, Pica pica. This finding shows that elaborate cognitive skills arose independently in corvids [the crow family] and primates, taxonomic groups with an evolutionary history that diverged about 300 million years ago."

Other scientists have already shown that some crows show exceptional intellectual skills, such as using and making simple tools that are used for food foraging.

The relative intelligence of magpies has traditionally presented a problem to gamekeepers and conservationists seeking to control their numbers. Their wariness makes them difficult to shoot, so the most widely used form of population control is a larsen trap, which is baited with a magpie from outside a bird's normal social circle. Dr Prior added: "In addition to showing social understanding during competition for food, magpies are curious and prone to approach new situations, making them ideally suited for an experiment that requires spontaneous interaction with a new and puzzling context."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
i100
News
Prince Harry is clearing enjoying the Commonwealth Games judging by this photo
people(a real one this time)
Extras
indybest
News
Richard Norris in GQ
mediaGQ features photo shoot with man who underwent full face transplant
News
Gardai wait for the naked man, who had gone for a skinny dip in Belfast Lough
newsTwo skinny dippers threatened with inclusion on sex offenders’ register as naturists criminalised
News
Your picture is everything in the shallow world of online dating
i100
Life and Style
Attractive women on the Internet: not a myth
techOkCupid boasts about Facebook-style experiments on users
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Account Manager, London Bridge

£30,000 + 20K Commssion: Charter Selection: This rapidly expanding organisatio...

English Teacher

£22000 - £36000 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary English Teacher...

Content Manager - Central London

£35000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Content Manager - Central...

General Cover Teacher - Grimsby

Negotiable: Randstad Education Hull: Qualified Teachers needed for Supply in t...

Day In a Page

The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on