Dolphins Recognize Themselves Before Human Children Do

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If you thought you were special, think again, human. A new study found that young dolphins actually recognize themselves earlier than young chimps ... and human children.

When scientists want to figure out if an animal can recognize itself, they need one thing: a mirror. It's a pretty simple idea: you put an animal in front of a mirror and see what it does. Most animals can't figure out that the animal in the mirror is really itself (ever seen a dog bark at its reflection?). But some animals make repetitive motions in the mirror to figure out what's going on.

Scientists have only found a handful of animals that can do this, including humans, chimps, dolphins and, for some reason, magpies. And even though we know adult dolphins can see themselves in mirrors, no one had ever tried out the test on young dolphins ... until now.

A couple of scientists from New York's CUNY Graduate Center put a mirror underwater and filmed Bayley and Foster, two young bottlenose dolphins, looking at themselves over a period of three years. The dolphins recognized themselves right away; they started making those repetitive motions when they were only seven months old. It usually takes human babies at least a year to do the same, and it takes chimp babies even longer.

"We suggest that the dolphins in this study began to use the mirror as a tool to view themselves as they performed a variety of novel and sometimes 'apparent social behaviors'," write the researchers.

This test isn't just about mirrors. Scientists have found that recognizing yourself in a mirror goes hand in hand with things like empathy, play, intelligence and just plain dealing with others. Yet more proof that these marine friends of ours are really, really smart.