Math is Wild: Counting and Calculation in Animals

We humans pride ourselves on our capacity for higher thinking. After all, abstract thought is what separates us from the animals – isn’t it? Not according to scientists, who are continually discovering remarkable abilities in animals allowing them to count, recognize patterns and even perform complex calculations.

The “math instinct” has been observed in creatures from one end of the evolutionary scale to the other. In many cases, incredible mathematical abilities are hardwired into DNA, so that animals perform them unconsciously: such is the case with cicadas, who inevitably pass 17 years before emerging from their cocoons.

But some animals appear capable of consciously performing mathematical tasks. It’s a feat that seems surprising – until you consider that mathematics is not necessarily a human invention, but a human discovery; a scientific language for describing the patterns of the universe. Here are some of the more impressive mathematical abilities demonstrated by our earthly neighbors.

Insects

A capacity for numerosity – or a sense of number – has been observed in many types of insects. Male mealworm beetles can distinguish between different groups of females in order to maximize their mating chances (prefering to target groups with more females). The beetles will also alter the amount of time spent guarding their mate depending on how many competing males are present.

Both bees and ants use counting to help in navigation. Ants are known to count the number of turns in a maze and communicate this information to nest mates. Bees can keep track of navigational landmarks when attempting to find food; experiments have also demonstrated their ability to match different quantities of symbols at either end of a maze.

For those of you worried about math-wielding insects rising up against us, don’t head for the bunker just yet: though they are capable of some impressive mathematical feats, most insects have difficulty counting any higher than four.

Birds

If there’s one critter that epitomizes air-headedness in our collective consciousness, it’s the humble chicken – perhaps due in part to the legacy of Chicken Little and her brainless hysterics. But chickens, and poultry in general, are brighter than we give them credit for. The claim that “chickens are smarter than toddlers” is often bandied around, and while it’s not as straightforward as that, there is evidence that newborn chicks are better at basic arithmetic, physics, navigation and self-control than children up to the age of 4.

Other species of bird have also displayed some surprising mathematical abilities. Pigeons are capable of learning abstract rules about numbers, a skill otherwise only demonstrated by primates. When asked to rank groups of objects on a screen from least to most numerous, pigeons performed just as well as rhesus monkeys (more on them later) – even when confronted by numbers they hadn’t encountered before.

Noted avian genius Alex the African grey parrot took this one step further, learning not only to add physical objects, but also to perform simple equations using numerical symbols. Sadly, Alex died partway through the mathematical experiments, meaning we’ll never know how his mathematical reasoning worked or the extent of his abilities.

Primates

Many of humanity’s closest living relatives share our affinity for math, and it’s no surprise: primates are known for our large brains and superior cognitive abilities (not to brag). Rhesus macaques in particular have demonstrated the ability to perform fairly advanced mathematics, using symbol recognition to calculate quantities of food. It’s been suggested that humans and Rhesus monkeys use the same “mental estimation process” used by humans and Rhesus macaques when they perform addition.

When it comes to intelligence, chimpanzees are our closest rivals – and may even best us in some spheres. One experiment found that young chimpanzees outperformed adult humans in a numerical memory task. When it comes to actual mathematical calculation chimps fall a bit further behind, though at least one chimpanzee called Sheba was able to count using abstract numbers.

Nick Nedeljkovic is a freelance writer and blogger from Sydney. With a love of learning and more degrees than he can afford, he’s a passionate advocate for education in all its forms.