If a fish can pass the mark test, what are the implications for consciousness and self-awareness testing in animals?

Last modified: 
February 19, 2019 - 3:21pm
Type: Journal Article
Year of publication: 2019
Date published: 02/2019
Authors: Masanori Kohda, Takashi Hotta, Tomohiro Takeyama, Satoshi Awata, Hirokazu Tanaka, Jun-ya Asai, Alex Jordan
Journal title: PLOS Biology
Volume: 17
Issue: 2
Pages: e3000021

The ability to perceive and recognise a reflected mirror image as self (mirror self-recognition, MSR) is considered a hallmark of cognition across species. Although MSR has been reported in mammals and birds, it is not known to occur in any other major taxon. Potentially limiting our ability to test for MSR in other taxa is that the established assay, the mark test, requires that animals display contingency testing and self-directed behaviour. These behaviours may be difficult for humans to interpret in taxonomically divergent animals, especially those that lack the dexterity (or limbs) required to touch a mark. Here, we show that a fish, the cleaner wrasse Labroides dimidiatus, shows behaviour that may reasonably be interpreted as passing through all phases of the mark test: (i) social reactions towards the reflection, (ii) repeated idiosyncratic behaviours towards the mirror, and (iii) frequent observation of their reflection. When subsequently provided with a coloured tag in a modified mark test, fish attempt to remove the mark by scraping their body in the presence of a mirror but show no response towards transparent marks or to coloured marks in the absence of a mirror. This remarkable finding presents a challenge to our interpretation of the mark test—do we accept that these behavioural responses, which are taken as evidence of self-recognition in other species during the mark test, lead to the conclusion that fish are self-aware? Or do we rather decide that these behavioural patterns have a basis in a cognitive process other than self-recognition and that fish do not pass the mark test? If the former, what does this mean for our understanding of animal intelligence? If the latter, what does this mean for our application and interpretation of the mark test as a metric for animal cognitive abilities?

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