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Fish appear to recognise themselves in the mirror
Alex Jordan administered the mirror test on cleaner wrasse in order to test the cognitive capacity of social fish.

Study raises questions about how scientists test self-awareness in animals

Fish appear to be able to recognise themselves in the mirror, according to new research.

The study, published in PLOS Biology, observed cleaner wrasse fish responding to their reflection and attempting to remove coloured marks on their body.

The finding suggests that fish have higher cognitive abilities than first thought and has sparked questions about how scientists test self-awareness in animals that are so dissimilar to humans.

The research was carried out by researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology, the University of Konstanz and Osaka City University.

“The behaviours we observe leave little doubt that this fish behaviourally fulfils all criteria of the mirror test as originally laid out,” explained Alex Jordan, principal investigator at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology and the University of Konstanz.

“What is less clear is whether these behaviours should be considered as evidence that fish are self-aware - even though in the past these same behaviours have been interpreted as self-awareness in so many other animals.”

In the study, scientists placed a coloured mark on fish in an area that could only be viewed in a mirror. To gain a ‘pass,’ the fish needed to touch or investigate their mark, showing an awareness of the reflected image.

The researchers witnessed the fish attempting to remove the marks by rubbing their bodies on hard surfaces after looking at themselves in the mirror.

The fish did not attempt to remove transparent marks in the presence of a mirror, nor did they attempt to remove the coloured marks when no mirror was present. This suggests that the fish were responding to the visual cue of seeing the mark on themselves in the mirror.

To the authors of the study, the results present clear evidence of behaviours that appear to pass every phase of the classic mirror test. What is not yet clear, however, is whether the evidence shows that fish possess self-awareness.

“Personally, I find the most parsimonious interpretation to be that these fish do pass the test as given, but this doesn’t mean they are self-aware,” Alex continued. “Rather they come to recognise the reflection as a representation of their own bodies without the involvement of self-consciousness.

“Given this, we should critically evaluate whether the mark test remains the gold-standard for awareness testing in animals.”

Image (C) Max Planck Institute/S.Gingins.

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Public urged to provide homes for swifts

News Story 1
 The RSPB is calling on the public to help provide new homes for swifts, as figures show the birds' numbers have fallen to less than half what they were 20 years ago.

Swifts arrive in the UK late April-May and can spend up to three months in the country. The RSPB attributes the birds’ decline to modern buildings, which lack the nooks and crannies they need to build nests.

While some house builders have agreed to integrate swift homes into new buildings, the RSPB believes more can be done to help this incredible bird. 'Just, 1,000 additional new nest boxes could make a difference’, the charity said.  

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News Shorts
Vets in developing nations given free access to BSAVA’s online library

BSAVA has teamed up with the WSAVA, the WSAVA Foundation and FECAVA to offer vets in developing nations free access to its online library.

The Association’s ‘Foundation Collection’ is comprised of more than 70 hours of articles, lectures and book chapters covering topics such as basic handling skills, working on a budget and emergency triage. Some of the countries set to benefit include Albania, Georgia, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda and Tanzania.

Nicolette Hayward, of BSAVA International Affairs Committee said: “Our mission is to promote excellence in small animal practice through education and science, so we are delighted to work with WSAVA, the WSAVA Foundation and FECAVA to share these high-quality resources to the veterinary profession in low and middle-income countries.”