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How Do Animals Recognize Members of Their Own Species?
July 18, 2010 5:55 AM   Subscribe

Most animals don't recognize themselves in a mirror. Yet, they obviously can recognize another member of their species. E.g., if you have a cat for a pet, and introduce a new cat into the mix, both will likely do more than just notice each other. Same with dogs. Cats, dogs, et al, are able to tell the difference between cat, dogs, et al. Obviously, this ability to distinguish members of your own species works out nicely, especially for breeding purposes. But, how does it work? How does the old cat in the house know that the new addition is also a cat and not a small rabbit?
posted by justcorbly to Pets & Animals (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
I'm no zoologist, but it seems to me that smell plays a huge part in recognition for non-human animals.
posted by Pineapplicious at 6:00 AM on July 18, 2010


Scents and the other animal's behavior.

Few animals have eyesight as good as primates do*. But most have exquisite senses of smell, as smell tells an animal about the proximity and approximate location of predators, prey and other food, and mates.

* Well, primate sight is great for daytime, and for finding red and yellow fruits in green trees. Non-fruitivores have sight that's good for what they use it for, but in humans sight is relied on as the primary sense; in other animals smell is more primary.

Behavior: animals can "trigger" on certain behavior of other animals. This is why, for example, some dogs will maul human babies, because the baby's crawling can appear to the dog to be the locomotion of a wounded prey animal.
posted by orthogonality at 6:05 AM on July 18, 2010 [3 favorites]


Smell. Fun anecdote: The first time my dog saw her own reflection, she walked up to it, sniffed it and freaked out barking. She also hates animal statues. I've always assumed that it is because they look like animals but have no smell. But it isn't like I can ask her or anything...
posted by cestmoi15 at 6:19 AM on July 18, 2010


They can recognize calls as well--my cat will tense up if she hears a catfight outside even though she doesn't react much to most outdoor sounds.

Some animals will recognize that an animal in a mirror is a member of their species, just not that they are the individual in the mirror. Birds especially are like this.
posted by phoenixy at 6:21 AM on July 18, 2010


Oh, and on a related note: imprinting--the geese seemed to identify other members of their species by sight but their definition of what their species is not inborn.
posted by phoenixy at 6:32 AM on July 18, 2010


Kittens recognise a mirror image as another kitten, and will usually make themselves 'big' to scare it off. Of course, the mirror cat is also bigging itself up, so hilarity and cuteness often ensures. But this wears off after a short while and then the cat takes no notice of its mirror image.
posted by essexjan at 7:17 AM on July 18, 2010 [5 favorites]


Some animals will recognize that an animal in a mirror is a member of their species, just not that they are the individual in the mirror.

Hehe yeah, my pony once neighed happily to see another pony when we were walking past mirrored windows.
posted by ClarissaWAM at 7:32 AM on July 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


Higher primates, including apes *can* recognize themselves in mirrors. This RadioLab episode seems somewhat pertinent to your question. As for recognizing one another (and telling themselves from other species, from example) I think the answer lies deep in the combined recesses of instinct, genetics and evolution. A hefty dose of memory and context can help, too.

The process of remembering or recognizing another animal like oneself can be short-circuited, though, as is evidenced by stories we see of dogs raising kittens, etc. When the context in which the kitten is introduced is changed (i.e., first meeting in a cozy living room rather than in a backyard) sometimes the normal response can be changed, too.

I think the succinct best answer is memory and context, though. And check out that RadioLab episode. It's pretty amazing. Also, best show on the radio.
posted by littlerobothead at 7:59 AM on July 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


I remember my kitten freaking out when he first saw the old Windows Haunted House screensaver, which has a animated black cat cross the screen every so often. I'm guessing it's instinct of some sort.

Then again, they sometimes recognize and attack pictures of other cats.
posted by razdrez at 8:59 AM on July 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


My cat used to react to cheetahs and other big cats on the television (almost always when they were attacking prey; he'd "help" by pawing at the screen). I thought it was the motion, but he wouldn't react to any other kind of show.
posted by desjardins at 10:17 AM on July 18, 2010


They can recognize calls as well--my cat will tense up if she hears a catfight outside even though she doesn't react much to most outdoor sounds.

They can even do it with animals they haven't encountered before. My cats get extremely agitated when they hear coyotes calling. Apparently that sound is Bad News for cats, even without personal experience.

Both cats also made that chittering "it's a bird there's a bird outside the window omg bird catch it catch it bird bird" call... at a deer. Somehow they knew it was prey, even though they'd have needed a couple hundred more cats to bring it down...
posted by vorfeed at 10:42 AM on July 18, 2010


One of my dogs, who is decidedly smarter than the other, recognizes dogs and many other animals on TV (especially chickens and rodents.)

She also barked at and was very interested in Doug from Up! and other cartoon dogs. Our other dogs is completely oblivious to anything on the TV.

Smart dog also responds to a mirror like it's a dog but doesn't seem to understand it is her.

I mention all this to say that my little terrier who often hunts by sight responds incredibly to images of animals where as our basset hound ignores any picture/movie/representation of another creature unless it smells like something.
posted by Saminal at 11:03 AM on July 18, 2010


My dog knows its herself in the mirror.
posted by fshgrl at 3:05 PM on July 18, 2010


The same way we know the difference between people and cats and dogs. It is just a hard-wired skill.
posted by gjc at 3:39 PM on July 18, 2010


Non-fruitivores have sight that's good for what they use it for, but in humans sight is relied on as the primary sense; in other animals smell is more primary.

orthogonality, you're not the first to use this sort of phrasing about animal smell, but it's simply not true.

A blind deer/bear/wolf/lemur/squirrel/buffalo... will die much sooner than if the same animal had a stuffy nose. Aside from animals that hunt by echolocation, sonar, or live in caves, underground, or at great depths, sight is the primary sense of every single animal. Touch is probably second.

Now, for hunting purposes, scent is clearly important for many animals. A primary tool for many, of course. But that's only one aspect of their life.


And, agreeing with fshgrl: I don't buy that animals don't recognize themselves in the mirror. Animals that are regularly exposed to mirrors are pretty clear about it. My puppy doesn't freak out when my image in the mirror pets that dog in the mirror... anymore.

I suspect humans who've never seen a mirror might be a bit spooked by a full-length mirror, as well.
posted by IAmBroom at 5:41 PM on July 18, 2010


They can recognize calls as well--my cat will tense up if she hears a catfight outside even though she doesn't react much to most outdoor sounds.

A fun experiment: look for cat fight videos on YouTube, make sure your cat is in the room, turn up the volume on your computer speakers, play cat fight videos. Amusement ensures as your cat searches for the other cats making these sounds.
posted by Kurichina at 10:58 AM on July 19, 2010


My youngest cat never saw the kitty in the mirror when he was up close, but I noticed that if I was holding him and was standing in the other room such that he could see his silhouette in the mirror, he tensed up and stared.

I assume he cued off the outline of a cat, and when he was far enough away that scent was less of an issue, he assumed it was another cat, but when he was close enough to know that it didn't smell like a cat, he didn't recognize it as one.
posted by telophase at 2:25 PM on July 19, 2010


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