Monkey Math and Other Number-Crunching Critters
Rhesus monkeys are able to perform math at an advanced level, reports a study this week from Harvard Medical Medical school. The monkeys were able to determine a greater value for food rewards (water, juice or orange soda) after learning to recognize numerals 0 to 9 and 16 letters.
But monkeys aren't the only members of the animal kingdom with math smarts. Let's take a look at some others.
Pigeons may be ubiquitous, but they're also brainy, according to a new study that found these birds are on par with primates when it comes to numerical competence.
The study, published in the journal Science, discovered that pigeons can discriminate among different amounts of number-like objects, order pairs and learn abstract mathematical rules. Aside from humans, only rhesus monkeys have exhibited equivalent skills.
Strebe, Wikimedia Commons
The great white shark in "Jaws" knew exactly where it was going -- to the closest pair of plump legs around. But where might it head if it didn't have a tasty human snack in its sights?
A 2010 study suggests that some sharks and other marine predators can follow strict mathematical strategies when foraging for dinner. The work, reported online in Nature, aims to show whether animals sometimes move in a pattern called a Lévy walk.
Unlike random motion -- in which animals take similar-sized steps in any direction, like a drunk stumbling around -- Lévy walks are punctuated by rare, long forays in any direction. Draw a Lévy walk on a graph, and its squiggly pattern echoes a fractal, the mathematical phenomenon whose shape remains similar no matter the viewing scale.
"Living organisms, when allowed to make freely willed decisions, seem to end up obeying some kind of mathematical law," says Gandhimohan Viswanathan, a theoretical physicist at the Federal University of Alagoas in Maceió, Brazil, who was not involved in the study.
Dogs understand arithmetic, according to Stanley Coren of the University of British Colombia's Department of Psychology.
Studies show, for example, that dogs notice errors in simple computations, such as 1+1=3.
In addition, the average dog, Coren said, can learn 165 words.
"Super dogs," meaning those in the top 20 percent of canine intelligence, can learn at least 250 words and signals.
Fish can distinguish between larger and smaller quantities, with an additional ability to "count" up to three, according to research on tropical angelfish. Fish, as well as dogs, probably have even more advanced mathematical ability, scientists suspect, but we need more methods to better study these animals.
Angelo Bisazza, a professor in the Comparative Psychology Research Group at the University of Padova, told Discovery News that such research is "slowly unraveling the cognitive abilities of fish and, as for the case of numerical abilities, they often suggest that the capabilities of these creatures are not so dissimilar from those of the organisms -- monkeys, rodents and pigeons -- that have traditionally been employed for these studies."
Dolphins may use complex nonlinear mathematics when hunting, according to a 2012 study.
Researchers modeled the types of echolocation pulses that dolphins emit. The researchers processed them using nonlinear mathematics instead of the standard way of processing sonar returns. The technique worked, and could explain how dolphins achieve hunting success with bubbles.
The math involved is complex. Essentially it relies upon sending out pulses that vary in amplitude. The first may have a value of 1 while the second is 1/3 that amplitude.
"So, provided the dolphin remembers what the ratios of the two pulses were, and can multiply the second echo by that and add the echoes together, it can make the fish 'visible' to its sonar," lead author Tim Leighton told Discovery News. "This is detection enhancement."
Parrots, chimpanzees and even pigeons have been shown to have an advanced understanding of numerical concepts. The studies together indicate that math ability is inborn in many species, with number sense, mathematical skills and verbal ability perhaps being separate talents in humans that we later learn to combine.