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Can snakes identify themselves? Some do, as shown by an experiment in which scientists, among other things, took olive oil from the kitchen cupboard

by News Room
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Experiments with king pythons and eastern garter snakes tentatively suggest that the latter species can recognize themselves.

Does the animal recognize itself? That’s an interesting question. And to answer this question, researchers invented a test years ago: the mirror test. The stickers are attached to the animal’s body in places that it cannot see without the help of a mirror. Then the animal is placed in a room equipped with a mirror and checked to see if it realizes that the marking is on its own body. This can be inferred, for example, when an animal tries to touch or remove a mark on its body – which can only be seen in a mirror – or on its body.

You might think this is a foolproof experiment. But strangely enough, the experiment produces very mixed results. For example, species that are generally considered to be quite intelligent – such as crows – do not seem to recognize themselves based on the mirror test, while other species that would not be expected at all based on their alleged cognitive skills – such as cleaner fish – do. And researchers have suspected for some time that there are major flaws in the mirror test, researcher Sonja Hillemacher previously told “First of all, the assumption that the animal is physically able and willing to touch certain parts of its body that it cannot see. This may be possible for an animal with arms and hands, but if the animal has fins or wings, for example, the test requires extra creativity if you plan to label the animal’s body. Another requirement (ed. for a reliable mirror test) is that the animal must be genuinely interested in touching and exploring the marking on its body. In short: the classic mirror test has some flaws. “A positive result can be interpreted very clearly (as evidence that the animal recognizes itself in the mirror, ed.), but a negative result does not necessarily prove that the animal does not recognize itself in the mirror. Finally, it is also possible that he recognizes himself and notices the mark, but is simply not interested in investigating this mark further.”

And the mirror test is not really suitable for snakes either, the researchers now write in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B Biological Sciences. Because these animals are not very visual, they are guided by the sense of smell. To find out if they can recognize themselves, the researchers took a different approach. They collected several oriental garter snakes and royal pythons and did not put them in front of a mirror, but presented them with cotton pads. Sometimes those cotton pads smelled just like the snake itself. Sometimes the smell of the snake itself on the cotton pad mixed with the smell of olive oil. And sometimes the cotton pad smelled like a teammate or its smell was mixed with the smell of olive oil. There were also cotton pads that were just soaked in olive oil, so they didn’t have the smell of the snake. The researchers then looked at how the snakes reacted to the smell of the cotton pads. And they pay special attention to the movements of snakes’ tongues.

The experiment leads to clear conclusions, the researchers write. “We found that the eastern garter snake, but not the royal python, made more tongue movements with its own adapted odor (i.e. olive oil) than with the unadapted odor.” They also made more tongue movements on a cotton pad with only olive oil and a cotton pad with olive oil and a friend scent. “These results demonstrate that eastern garter snakes are able to recognize their own odor and know when it has adapted and, importantly, feel motivated to further explore the adapted odors,” the researchers write.

The social side
It may seem strange that Royal Pythons do not seem to be able to identify themselves based on this test. But researchers believe they can explain this. For example, they note that eastern garter snakes are much more social than royal pythons. And previous research has already suggested that more social species tend to be better able to recognize themselves (and thus distinguish them from others).

It is interesting that some snakes can identify themselves by smell. But what exactly does that mean? In the past, self-recognition was associated with self-awareness; For example, animals that recognize themselves in front of a mirror were sometimes considered to be aware of themselves and thus even their own identity. Scientists don’t want to go that far in the case of eastern garter snakes. “We avoid ascribing higher cognitive skills—such as self-awareness or awareness—to snakes because we do not believe that the results of the mirror tests (or in this case some variation of them, ed.) can prove such skills by themselves.”

However, based on their experiments, the researchers are convinced that at least some of the snakes can recognize themselves. Their research also seems to support that self-recognition is related to the species’ social skills. “We are not suggesting that socializing is the only way to develop self-recognition, but rather that more advanced self-recognition may be beneficial for animals in more complex social systems.”

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