While animals may not have a linguistic sense of numbers so they’re counting off “1, 2, 3″ in their heads, Elizabeth Brannon of Duke University thinks they have an innate ability to “do a rough sort of math by summing sets of objects without actually using numbers.” As she tells Scientific American, this mathematical ability may have evolved due to territorial animals needing “to access the different sizes of competing groups and for foraging animals to determine whether it is good to stay in one area given the amount of food retrieved versus the amount of time invested.”
There have been cases of individual animals (Alex the African gray parrot who could count up to six and add and subtract) with counting ability. Here are five species that seem to have the ability to count, suggesting that math “could be more fundamental in biology.”
The more researchers learn about chimpanzees, the more it’s clear how very learned they are.
Scientists placed a chimpanzee in front of two sets of two bowls; all the bowls contained chocolate pieces and the chimpanzee had to choose the set with the greatest total of pieces. That is, the chimpanzee had to count the pieces in each of the two bowls and then add them together. 90 percent of the time, they got the question right.
Scientists in New Zealand found that wild robins not only gathered around holes with the most mealworms (beetle larvae). If the scientists tricked the robins to look away and removed some of the mealworms, the birds then spent twice as long looking through the hole for the missing mealworms.
Kevin C. Burns of Victoria University of Wellington says that the robins “probably have some innate ability to discern between small numbers” such as three and four and can train themselves to count all the way up to twelve.
3. The domestic chicken
A chicken only three days old, set in front of two opaque screens, sees one ball go behind the first screen and then four go behind the second — and the chicken (um, chick) proceeds towards the screen hiding the greater number of balls.
No big deal, right; more is always better?
If things are made more complicated — the one ball disappears behind one screen, four go behind the second screen, then two balls are visibly placed behind the first screen — the chicks correctly approached the screen that then contained three balls, 80 percent of the time. Not bad for a chicken who’s not even a week old.
4. Rhesus monkeys
Jessica Cantlon of the University of Rochester has found that rhesus monkeys can be quicker than humans (in this case, college students) when presented with two sets of objects of the same color, shape and size and asked to choose the set with fewer items. When Cantlon varied the color, shape and size of the objects, the monkeys’ accuracy and reaction time was the same.
In fact, while they were 10 to 20 percent less accurate than humans, the monkeys had faster reaction times.
Another researcher, Elizabeth Brannon of Duke University, has found that rhesus monkeys can “do math across different senses,” matching the number of sounds heard to shapes seen. She also found the monkeys can do subtraction.
Ants in the Tunisian saltpan desert, whose landscape offers few visual clues to guide them back home and where windstorms make the use of scent impossible, can not only count, but do geometry or even, trigonometry.
To make their way home, the ants “path integrate,” say researchers Martin Muller and Rudiger Wehner. That is, the tiny creatures figure out which way to walk by calculating the angle of their path relative to the position of the sun. They are also able to continuously redo their calculations as the sun moves across the sky.
How Muller and Wehner figured this out is itself worthy of note: they put stilts made of pigs’ hairs onto the ants’ legs.
What to make of all these accounts of animals doing math? As Brannon says in Scientific American, child educators might take a cue and start teaching math to children before the current starting age of four or five.
If three-day chicks can count, who knows what three-year-olds can do, too?
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