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Mirror mirror, on the wall: Who’s the fairest seal of all?

The marking is placed on an area of the body only visible to the seals through the use of a mirror.

Our seals recognize their trainers and each other, but can they recognize themselves?

That’s what Maritime Aquarium intern Alexis Hudson, a senior Marine Biology major at the University of New Haven, wants to find out.

For six weeks, she’ll study six of The Maritime Aquarium’s harbor seals (Polly, Ariel, Tillie, Leila, Rasal, and Orange) by submerging a mirror in the seal pool. By temporarily marking the seals, she may be able to determine whether they can recognize themselves in the mirror based on their behaviors.

If the seals react to the marking, such as examining it in the mirror, they could be showing signs of self-recognition.

The mirror test was developed by Gordon Gallup Jr. in 1970 to gauge if animals exhibit self-awareness or have the ability to recognize their reflection in a mirror.

Trainer Vicki Sawyer applies a marking to one of the harbor seals. If a seal reacts to the marking upon their reflection, it is believed they are exhibiting self-recognition.

Humans typically begin to recognize their own reflection between 18-24 months. Other animals known to pass the mirror test include all great apes (bonobos, chimpanzees, orangutans and gorillas), bottlenose dolphins, killer whales, elephants and European magpies.

Because Susie has impaired vision due to cataracts, she is not part of the test group. (See how we treated another one of our seals for cataracts in a previous post!) However, Alexis is noting the behaviors she presents upon introducing something new in the seal pool.

But other seals in the test group have cataracts, too. Since they can see, at least partially, she doesn’t believe their cataracts will affect the study.

“I am taking into account the cataracts and such but we really don’t think that it will have a huge impact on the ability to see their reflection,” Alexis said.

We’ll keep you updated on Alexis’ findings! At the end of her research, we’ll follow up with the results of her study.

Alexis and two other interns wait for the seals to interact with the mirror they lowered into the seal pool.

 

 

 

 

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This entry was posted in animals, education, Long Island Sound, Marine Life, Research and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Mirror mirror, on the wall: Who’s the fairest seal of all?

  1. Alexis Hudson says:

    Most of the actual research is finished now. Just time to crunch numbers and run some statistics. Very excited for the outcome! With behavior studies like this, I don’t look at the data until its all in to avoid seeing patterns that I “want” to see. Even though these girls are adorable I have to keep my personal feelings out of the equation!

  2. Alexis Hudson says:

    My research is now finished and my thesis has been written!! We found that the seals do not have the ability to recognize themselves in the mirror. They treated the mirror as any other new object in their pool. An interesting note is that Susie, who is blind, was one of the first seals to notice something was there! Although these seals did not show behaviors of self- recognition, it would be interesting to study more seals to confirm the conclusion.

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