Mirror-Image Stimulation Study, Jaguar at River Pariamanu, Peru (21 Sep 2017)

Updated: Oct 19, 2020

Behavioural Analysis of Jaguar (Panthera Onca) – Mirror Interaction

Lowland Peruvian Amazon Rainforest – Pariamanu River, Madre de Dios Region

June-September 2017

Photography and Videography by Mark Fernley Untamed Photography Ltd.

Critical Analysis and Behavioural Interpretation by Richard Huzij MSc Psychology



Subject: Jaguar (Panthera onca) – Filmed using a camera trap set 2m away from a 1.5m by 1.5m mirror secured in place within Terra firma Elevated Forest along the Pariamanu River, Madre De Dios Region, lowland Peruvian Amazon Rainforest during a dry evening at approximately 2am. The Subject was identified as a young male, its sex identified via the video obtained by the Untamed Photography team. This was the second Jaguar documented to interact with a mirror in this region.


As evidenced by the camera trap, the subject interacts with the mirror for approximately 2 minuets as presented by film view. However, evidence provided at the scene is indicative that the Subject was present for around 5-10 minuets before moving away.

At initial interaction, although the Subject does physically interact with the mirror with its paws and mouth, as well as vocally interact with it, the behaviour does not present as aggressive (unlike the other Jaguar filmed a month earlier). Subject appears to sway its head from left to right for approximately 20 seconds during its interactions as well as investigates behind the mirror before settling to lay down beside the mirror, looking into it on occasion.

Upon returning to the mirror site 24 hours later, the Untamed Photography team discovered 9 separate 50-70cm circular/oblong ‘scratchings’ in the ground with animal faeces and urine present amongst them. These were located primarily in front of the mirror, with others to the sides and behind the mirror.


Recognition, specifically self-recognition, is a primary theme of this behavioural analysis. The question asked of me by Mark Fernley on behalf of the team at Untamed Photography was if the Subject’s interactions with the mirror may be indicative of a display of self-recognition, or indeed any form of recognition, from the Jaguar. The opportunity to work with Mark and the team has been very exciting for me. After visiting him and accompanying Untamed Photography to the Madre De Dios region during November last year, it was wonderful to have been given this chance to contribute to their work in a more professional/academic capacity now.

To properly understand self-recognition, an important point needs to be made first. In order for any subject to recognise themselves in a mirror will require the cognitive capacity for (at least some) knowledge of self (Lewis, 2012, Anderson, 1984). The most common ‘test’ of animal self-awareness is a self-recognition test against a mirror – The Mark Test ‘MSR’ (Gallup, 1970). To date, the only animals documented to display a quantifiable amount of self-awareness are: Orangutans, Chimpanzees, Gorillas, Bottlenose Dolphins, Elephants, Orcas, Bonobos, Rhesus Macaques, European Magpies and every so often Humans (Langley, 2015, Turner, 2013).

The extent to which any non-human can truly have/demonstrate self-awareness is a large topic within its self and the details of this debate are too extensive to be explored in any greater detail within this analysis (however should you wish to read more, for reviews of different animals see: Gallup, 1970 – Several species of primates; Patterson, 1978 – gorillas; Reiss and Marino, 2001 – Bottlenose Dolphins; Plotnik et al, 2006 – Asian elephant; Delfour and Marten, 2001 – Killer Wales; Rajala et al, 2010 – Rhesus Monkeys: Prior, Schwarz and Güntürkün, 2008 – European Magpies). Considering wider research, it can be argued that Jaguars do not have the required cognitive capacity to be self-aware and so there for, no, the Jaguar does not recognise its self in the mirror. The End… no of course not, there is far more to this case than that (thankfully!)

Although the Subject can be said to not have the cognitive capacity required, its behaviour can still be argued to be indicative of a form of recognition – not Self recognition in this case, but recognition of a Jaguar. The primary evidence for this is provided by the series of scent marked “scratchings” that the Untamed Photography team found at the mirror site. Such scratchings are already a researched phenomenon amongst jaguars and other big cats. Research (Allen et al, 2014, Cavalcanti et al, 2009, Harmsen et al, 2010) has evidenced the extent to which certain big cats communicate socially via these scented scratching.

It was found that the scratching of the ground was a means of highlighting their scent to others so as to attract them towards investigating. The theorised purposes subjects have for wanting to attract attention to their scent can differ, from marking territory to mate attraction. It has also been considered that this has been a means of marking dominance, due to the higher volume of scratchings done by male subjects (Harmsen et al, 2010). However, scratching done as a means of dominance display has been discounted in part, due to finding that subjects increase scratching behaviour when they encounter more scent mounds in any given area (Harmsen et al, 2010). Therefore, evidence of the higher scratching frequencies is not associated with the presence of specific individuals – i.e a dominant individual, thus suggesting that scratch-marking behavior does not signal dominance in specific research locations – most of which are conducted in Brazil.

Instead, the high volume insures that any subjects sharing any area of terrain are aware of one and other’s presents. The validity of any of the current research highlighting these instances (Allen et al, 2014, Cavalcanti et al, 2009, Harmsen et al, 2010) are arguably dubious. What with the solitary and highly isolated nature of the subjects in question, means of conducting largely definitive research is difficult and as a result, any great amount of data can be argued to be lacking. However, what research has been conducted does highlight that jaguars do indeed have a social communicative structure. With this consideration in mind, it can be said that jaguars do display greater and more varied social behaviours.

Considering all this in relation to the Subject of this analysis, it can be argued that the jaguar’s behaviour in reaction to the mirror is communicative. The subject, lacking the cognitive ability to recognise its self, does recognise the form of a jaguar. In response to this recognition, the subject begins to attempt interactive communication through its normal means – vocalisation and scent marking/scratchings. A further interesting occurrence can be said to be the volume of scratchings made by the Subject (a total of 9). As discussed, the Subject can be argued to not be attempting a dominance display (Harmsen et al, 2010) against the reflected image, and instead is merely trying to communicate with it. The mounds/scratchings that it makes to do this would also be reflected in the mirror.

Like its own reflection, the Subject would also be able to see the reflections of the mounds, but be unable to understand that they are merely a reflected imaged of what is already there. This could explain the extent to which the Subject made its scratchings. If jaguars do make more scratchings the more they encounter them in their environment (Harmsen et al, 2010) then Untamed Photography research here can be argued to support this theory. The Subject, after seeing more (reflected) scratchings, makes more itself, thus seeking to communicate with/establish how many other jaguars are in its current environment. This is arguably evidence of the social behaviour of these largely isolated and solitary animals.

The social psychological implications of Untamed Photography’s research here is extraordinary. In Humans, greater social behaviour is achievable through the development of Theory of Mind (Astington and Edward, 2010) and begins to develop in human children between birth to around 5 years old. Interestingly for this work, human babies have been known to have developed enough to recognise their own reflection by approximately 18 months old (Astington and Edward, 2010), however do not develop enough cognitively to display greater social interactive skills until much older.

In this instance, greater social interactive skills are capable due to a greater awareness of self in relation to others (objects and people) in the environment – put simply, the child can better interact with the world around it when it recognises that what it can see/hear may not be what someone else can. Before this milestone is reached, a child will perceive the world in a totally self-subjective way wherein if he/she can see/hear something, they think everyone else can see it also regardless of where they are.

Although jaguars do not develop socially along the same lines as humans, it seems they do indeed possess means of social interaction, that these scent-marked scratchings are a mechanism of. Considering all that has been discussed here, the work done by the Untamed Photography team clearly is ripe with potential. Not just to highlight/reinforce work already done into jaguar behaviour, but to also uncover new discoveries. The team’s work in Peru is arguably highly relevant in itself, considering the great amount of research working in Brazil. Another key factor is that all the animals Untamed Photography document are completely wild and in their own natural habitat. Lots of research on animal recognition in mirrors is done on captive animals in zoos. As such, all Untamed Photography’s work is highly useful in understanding wild animal behaviour in the Lowland Peruvian Amazon Rainforest Pariamanu River, Madre De Dios Region.

Further work can and should now be done, not just with jaguars but with a variety of local wildlife. A Grey-Winged Trumpeter bird (Psophia Crepitans) has also been captured in the camera trap footage. Considering the work done on Magpies (Prior, Schwarz and Güntürkün, 2008) highlighting the existence of their self-recognition, further work done with the birds of the Madre De Dios Region could provide fascinating results.


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Written by Richard Huzij MSc Psychology