The latest innovation from BBC Earth is the "Magi-cam," a mirror-clad robotic video camera naturalists can deploy to capture their wild subjects' unguarded moments. It's a brilliant way to get as close as possible to the natural world, providing the most natural camouflage: The forest itself. In the segment below, David Attenborough asserts (uncontroversially) that many animals are shy of lurching mechanical contraptions. In tones of plummy bemusement, Sir David describes how bear cubs who normally wouldn't "come to ground" nonchalantly clamber down from the trees in the Magi-cam's presence—seemingly proving that the uncanny little prism is essentially invisible to the creatures of the forest.
Of course, the Magi-cam isn't just a means for surreptitiously filming animals in the wild; it also unavoidably constitutes a cognitive examination of the idea of self in the animal kingdom. Behavorists are divided over the usefulness of the "mirror test" as a means of measuring self-awareness. Black bears presumably don't recognize their own reflections (although bears can be very wary about surveillance, the BBC also has footage showing another robotic spy camera, this one designed to look like a small iceberg, being coolly dismantled by polar bears).
More than a few nonhuman species, however—including the great apes, dolphins, elephants, and magpies—know themselves when they look in the mirror. Presumably for them, as for us, the Magi-cam would quickly become a token of amusement or an object of wrath. Or, like ubiquitous security cameras that spy on urban humans everywhere, perhaps the Magi-cam will come to be taken for granted by future forest denizens—a reflective little particle of nature's burgeoning infrastructure, a shaky little trapezoidal droid jittering through the underbrush, watching all the while.
[Image: Flickr user dbaron]
Follow Matthew Battles on Twitter.