Animals that count

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Few scientists doubt that primates have a sense of number, and even distantly related animals, including salamanders, honeybees and newly hatched chicks, seem to have the knack, with some able to perform basic arithmetic. What's more, the skills of this growing mathematical menagerie resemble our own innate abilities. Could basic mathematics have evolved hundreds of millions of years ago?

Of course, without language or a precise symbolic system to represent numbers, animal numerical abilities will never reach human levels. No chimpanzee will ever learn long division, but with enough practice almost any human can master the challenge. So to put humans and animals on an equal footing, we need to look at more basic numerical faculties.

Chimp doing math

Chimpanzee doing math.
Image from theguardian.co.uk.


- Introduction to the course
- Reading
  • Animals that count
- Exercises
  1. True/False
  2. Vocabulary

Chick hatching

Chick hatching. Image from motherearthnews.com.

Prime among those is the ability to distinguish between a larger and a smaller number, says Elizabeth Brannon, a psychologist at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. Humans can do this with ease—providing the ratio is big enough—but do other animals share this ability?

Without language or a precise symbolic system to represent numbers, animal numerical abilities will never reach human levels.

Even our most distant relatives have some concept of number, but studies still don't show whether animals learn to count through training, or whether they are born with the skills already intact. If the latter is true, it would suggest there was a strong evolutionary advantage to a mathematical mind.


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Proof that this may be the case has emerged from an experiment testing the mathematical ability of three and four-day-old chicks. Chicks prefer to be around as many of their siblings as possible, so they will always head towards a larger number of their kin. They, too, have very low standards for what constitutes a sibling; if chicks spend their first few days surrounded by small balls or scraps of paper, they become attached to these inanimate objects as if they were family.

Rosa Rugani and Lucia Regolin at the University of Padua took advantage of this quirk to test whether chicks could perform simple calculations. They placed each chick in the middle of a platform and showed it two groups of balls or paper. Next, the researchers hid the two piles behind screens, and sequentially moved objects between them in view of the chick. This forced the chick to perform simple computations to decide which side now contained the biggest number of its newfound brethren. Without any prior coaching, the chicks scuttled to the larger quantity at a rate well above chance, correctly determining that 1 + 2 was greater than 4 - 2, that 0 + 3 exceeded 5 - 3, and that 4 - 1 was more than 1 + 1. "They are doing some simple, very simple, arithmetic," Regolin says. This suggests that numeracy is an innate ability in many animals that does not require training.



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Why these skills evolved is not hard to imagine, since it would help almost any animal forage for food, says Gallistel. Animals on the prowl for sustenance must constantly decide which tree has the most fruit, or which patch of flowers will contain the most nectar.

Unlike bony wings, number-crunching brains leave little trace in the fossil record. Only by studying the numerical abilities of more and more creatures using standardised procedures can we hope to understand the basic preconditions for the evolution of number.

New Scientist, 23 June 2013



Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson


A. Say whether the following statements are TRUE or FALSE and quote from the text to justify your answer.

1. The lack of speech partly explains why animals are above humans in terms of computation.

Check answer

2. We need to look at all creatures under the same light.

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3. The distinction between a larger and a smaller number is the only factor used to compare humans and animals in terms of numerical skills.

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4. It is more difficult to distinguish between 99 and 100 than between 3 and 4.

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5. The ability to do mathematics may be inherited.

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6. The chicks used chance for their computations.

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7. It is hard to track the evolution of computation skills in animals.

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B. VOCABULARY. In the table below, match the words from the text with their equivalents.
Word from the text Equivalent Match
1. hatched a. relative
2. knack b. singularity
3. perform c. rush
4. sibling d. gift
5. head towards d. seek
6. perform f. rush
7. prior g. rush
8. scuttle h. born
9. forage i. previous
10. on the prowl j. carry out
Check answers

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