EQUUS - - Med­i­cal Front -

When a horse peers at his re­flec­tion in the arena mir­ror, does he know he’s look­ing at him­self? Re­searchers in Italy are work­ing to an­swer that ques­tion, but the na­ture of horses them­selves is com­pli­cat­ing the ef­fort.

“Of course, horses and an­i­mals in gen­eral don’t have a need to rec­og­nize them­selves in the mir­ror---they don’t need to shave or put on makeup,” says Paolo Baragli, DVM, PhD, of the Univer­sity of Pisa, “but the abil­ity to rec­og­nize them­selves in a mir­ror is a build­ing block of self-aware­ness. Mir­ror self-recog­ni­tion high­lights the cog­ni­tive and emo­tional skills that are nec­es­sary to de­velop com­plex so­cial re­la­tion­ships and to en­gage in be­hav­iors re­ly­ing on the dif­fer­ent lev­els of em­pa­thy. For this rea­son, com­par­a­tive psy­chol­o­gists, pri­ma­tol­o­gists and ethol­o­gists have con­cen­trated their ef­forts over the past four decades on the study of mir­ror sel­f­recog­ni­tion in an­i­mals, in and out the pri­mate or­der.”

To de­ter­mine whether horses have this abil­ity, the Ital­ian re­searchers first ac­cli­mated four horses to an

en­clo­sure that con­tained a mir­ror, which was first cov­ered and then un­cov­ered. They then con­ducted the mark test par­a­digm, a stan­dard method of gaug­ing sel­f­recog­ni­tion in in­di­vid­u­als.

“This par­a­digm re­mains the cor­ner­stone of such stud­ies,” ex­plains Baragli. “An­i­mals should per­form a se­quence of be­hav­iors [when con­fronted with the un­cov­ered mir­ror] which leads them to un­der­stand the func­tion of a mir­ror. Such be­hav­iors can be bro­ken down into these steps: first, so­cial re­sponse, which is won­der­ing “who is she/he?” as they look at the re­flec­tion; phys­i­cal mir­ror in­spec­tion, in­clud­ing look­ing be­hind the mir­ror and repet­i­tive mir­ror-test­ing be­hav­iors, such as mak­ing strange faces.”

The re­searchers video­taped the horse’s in­ter­ac­tions with the mir­ror the first time it was un­cov­ered to help iden­tify and quan­tify these be­hav­iors.

Af­ter these ini­tial ob­ser­va­tions were made, the study horses were marked with an “X” on the lower right or left cheek, a lo­ca­tion that could be seen by the horses only by look­ing in the mir­ror. In some tri­als, the “X” was made with translu­cent gel; in other tri­als the gel was col­ored, to con­trol for the horses re­act­ing to the sen­sa­tion of the gel (tac­tile per­cep­tion), rather than the sight of it (vis­ual per­cep­tion). The re­searchers then watched to see if the horses would take any ac­tion, such as scrap­ing the cheek on their legs or a fence, to re­move the col­ored X from their own face af­ter see­ing it in the mir­ror. This may be indica­tive of the fact that the horses per­ceived the re­flec­tion as their own. Once again, re­searchers video­taped the be­hav­ior for later anal­y­sis and data col­lec­tion.

The re­sult­ing data did not af­firm that horses can rec­og­nize their own re­flec­tions, but Baragli says this may sim­ply re­veal a short­com­ing in the test­ing method­ol­ogy, which was de­vel­oped for pri­mates. “Not all an­i­mals which passed the mark test also per­formed the be­hav­iors we looked for in the first part of the study,” he says. “In our opin­ion, due to dif­fer­ent cog­ni­tion, mo­ti­va­tion, so­cial­ity, anatom­i­cal and per­cep­tual char­ac­ter­is­tics, we can­not ex­clude that dif­fer­ent an­i­mal species could fol­low dif­fer­ent ways to demon­strate their abil­ity to rec­og­nize them­selves in the mir­ror.”

What’s more, says Baragli, it’s pos­si­ble that a horse sim­ply wouldn’t be mo­ti­vated to re­move a col­ored mark from his face. “One of the crit­i­cisms to the mark test par­a­digm is that it starts from an an­thro­po­mor­phized point of view: Like hu­mans, an an­i­mal should be mo­ti­vated to re­move un­usual signs on its own body. Is that true? Own­ers will tell you that pas­tured horses are usu­ally muddy and the horses don’t seem to have a prob­lem with that. Can we be sure that horses did not re­move the col­ored mark be­cause they don’t rec­og­nize them­selves in the mir­ror? Could they sim­ply not be in­ter­ested in clean­ing up their bod­ies? Is this ex­per­i­men­tal de­sign ad­e­quate to cover this gap in non­pri­mate species such as horses?”

Baragli hopes that more re­search, pos­si­bly with an al­tered test­ing for­mat, will de­ter­mine whether a horse look­ing at him­self in a mir­ror knows who he is see­ing.

An an­i­mal’s abil­ity to rec­og­nize it­self in a mir­ror is a build­ing block of self-aware­ness.

Ref­er­ence: “Are horses ca­pa­ble of mir­ror sel­f­recog­ni­tion? A pi­lot study,” PLoS One, May 2017

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