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Innovation

Mirror, mirror, in my pen...

Proof that pigs use mirrors and can understand the meaning of a reflected image may lead to better living conditions for farm animals.
Written by Melanie D.G. Kaplan, Inactive on

“My, what big ears I have!”

OK, perhaps that wasn’t the first thought of the eight domesticated pigs studied by a team of animal welfare scientists at the University of Cambridge. But they were observant enough to look in the mirror, proud enough to check themselves out and clever enough to track down their food from its reflection.

According to the study, pigs (like others that can use mirrors—elephants, dolphins, gray parrots, some primates and humans) are able to learn what a mirror image represents and use it to obtain information. When put in a pen with a mirror in it, young pigs made movements while apparently looking at their image.

ScienceNOW reports that the pigs interacted with the mirror in various ways (none of which was commenting on the size of their ears, or noses for that matter): “At first, the pigs studied their reflected images and movements; some grunted at their image, and one banged the mirror so hard with its nose, it broke the glass.”

After five hours learning to love the mirror, the curly-tailed subjects were shown a familiar food bowl, visible in the mirror but hidden behind a solid barrier. It took seven of the pigs an average of 23 seconds to find the food bowl by moving away from the mirror and around the barrier. The last little piggy got none: he mistakenly looked for the food behind the mirror.

The study said the pigs were not locating the food bowl by smell, because an overhead fan blew the odor around and away from one specific spot (a tactic that would drive my fervently sniffing beagle insane); rather, to use the mirror to find chow, the study said, “each pig must have observed features of its surroundings, remembered these and its own actions, deduced relationships among observed and remembered features and acted accordingly.”

“This is the first demonstration of the ability of pigs to use mirrors,” animal behavior expert Donald Broom of the University of Cambridge wrote in an e-mail to Wired. “Finding sophisticated learning and awareness in animals can alter the way that people think about the species and may result in better welfare in the long run.”

Broom, who co-authored the paper published this month in Animal Behaviour, wrote that while the mirror experiment doesn’t directly prove that pigs have a sense of self, the researchers suggest that the pigs may have some degree of self-awareness. The researchers hope the study will lead to better living conditions for farm animals. “If an animal is clever,” Broom wrote, “it is less likely to be treated as if it is an object or a machine to produce food, and more likely to be considered as an individual of value in itself.”

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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