Mirror test hints at surprising cognitive abilities in fish

A fish called a cleaner wrasse interacts with its reflection in a mirror placed on the outside of the aquarium glass at a laboratory in Konstanz, Germany in this image released February 6, 2019. (REUTERS)
Updated 10 February 2019
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Mirror test hints at surprising cognitive abilities in fish

  • The test has been passed by great apes including chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans as well as dolphins, killer whales, an elephant and a magpie species, but failed by some other animals

WASHINGTON: A small tropical reef fish was able to recognize itself in a mirror, scientists said on Thursday in a finding that raises provocative questions about assessing self-awareness and cognitive abilities in animals.
The study involved experiments in which the fish species Labroides dimidiatus, called the bluestreak cleaner wrasse, was given a mirror self-recognition test, a technique developed in 1970 for gauging animal self-awareness.
In aquarium experiments at Osaka City University in Japan, the researchers applied a brown-colored mark on the fish’s body in a place that could be seen only in a mirror reflection.
The fish tried to remove the marks by scraping their bodies on hard surfaces after watching themselves in a mirror, but never tried to remove them without a mirror present, indicating they understood the reflection was of them, the researchers said. When a transparent, rather than brown, mark was applied, the fish never tried to remove it.
The four-inch-long (10-cm) species consumes parasites and dead tissue off skin of other reef fish in a relationship benefiting both. The brown mark’s color resembled the color of these parasites.
The fish “shows behaviors during the mirror test that are accepted as evidence for self-awareness in many other species,” said evolutionary biologist Alex Jordan of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Germany, who led the study published in the journal PLOS Biology.
Jordan, however, questioned whether the test represents a reliable measure of animal cognitive abilities.
“I don’t claim that fish lack self-awareness, but rather that the minimal required explanation for the behaviors we observe in the mirror test does not require invocation of self-awareness, self-consciousness, or theory of mind,” Jordan said.
The test has been passed by great apes including chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans as well as dolphins, killer whales, an elephant and a magpie species, but failed by some other animals. Humans pass it at around 18 months old.
“I consider that there is a spectrum of animal consciousness, with some animals, likely primates, showing abilities closer to human consciousness,” Jordan said. “My point with this paper is not that fish are as smart as chimpanzees, but that the way we ask that very question across taxa (animal groups) needs to be re-evaluated.”
University at Albany evolutionary psychologist Gordon Gallup, who pioneered the mirror test, called the new study “not methodologically sound” and faulted the researchers for a “zeal to undermine the integrity” of the technique to appraise animal self-awareness.
Emory University primatologist Frans de Waal, who has studied mirror self-recognition in mammals, called the findings “interesting and provocative.”
“The hope is that this study will throw open the discussion about self-awareness in animals. Instead of the black-and-white distinction we have had thus far, that some animals have it and most of them don’t, we need to develop a more gradualist perspective,” de Waal said.


Saudi Arabia in the crosshairs as cyber-raids target Gulf

More than 90 percent of malware is distributed by email with hackers seeking to trick users with fake invoices and other scams. (Shutterstock)
Updated 15 February 2019
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Saudi Arabia in the crosshairs as cyber-raids target Gulf

  • Cyberattacks were ranked as the second most important risk after an “energy shock” in these three Gulf states, according to the WEF’s flagship Global Risks Report 2019
  • Criminal phishing attacks rising sharply, cybersecurity experts warn

RIYADH: Online phishing attacks are on the rise with experts warning of increasing numbers of cyber-raids targeting Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries.
Phishing is a type of fraud where criminals target online victims, using deception to acquire users’ credentials, ranging from passwords to credit card and bank account details, and other financially sensitive information.
Cybersecurity experts say the numbers of attacks worldwide have risen dramatically, increasing from over 2 million in the first two weeks of February last year to more than 4.3 million in the same period this year.
Mohammed Khurram Khan, a professor of cybersecurity at King Saud University (KSU), told Arab News: “Saudi Arabia, due to its strong position in political, social and economic spheres, has been a key target for cyber-intrusions by state and nonstate actors aiming to compromise its national security.
“Various types of malware and scams, especially phishing, are used to target critical information infrastructure, which serve as the backbone of the economy,” he said.
More than 90 percent of malware is distributed by email with hackers seeking to trick users with fake invoices and other scams, said Khan, who is also the founder and CEO of the Global Foundation for Cyber Studies and Research, a Washington-based cybersecurity think tank.
“Computer users in Saudi Arabia have been confronted with more than 30 million phishing emails in recent years,” he said.
Khan said that awareness, training and “cyber-hygiene” were important to protect users and organizations from phishing scams.
KSU has developed a pioneering cybersecurity awareness product, “Rawam,” which helps organizations train employees to deal with malicious hacking, malware, ransomware, phishing and cyberattacks.
The bilingual tool has been used to train 100,000 staff in 40 different organizations, he said.
The World Economic Forum (WEF) last month warned of the growing likelihood of cyberattacks in the Gulf, with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar particularly vulnerable.
Cyberattacks were ranked as the second most important risk after an “energy shock” in these three Gulf states, according to the WEF’s flagship Global Risks Report 2019, released ahead of the annual forum in Davos.
Cybersecurity experts from the Kaspersky Lab, a multinational digital security provider, detected a sharp increase in phishing activities on the eve of the Valentine’s Day.
The overall number of user attempts to visit fraudulent websites detected and blocked by Kaspersky Lab in the first half of February exceeded 4.3 million.
“The spike offers a reminder that we should be cautious when surfing the web, even if we are just buying flowers for our loved one,” said Andrey Kostin, a senior web content analyst.