Animals Can Do Math

Ever questioned the usefulness of math in daily life? Maybe not for us, but some animals use mathematics very naturally- and it's not just monkeys- many animals can and do use math every day.

In humans, the part of the brain that can understand numbers is the right superior parietal lobe. It was generally assumed that if an organism does not have this kind of complex neural network, it cannot understand the concept of numbers. However, various incidences of animals potentially understanding numbers were observed. Ethological experiments were conducted and it was concluded that yes animals can, in fact, do the math. You must be thinking “Oh monkeys are basically like us, so it’s not surprising that they can do math”, but no - it’s not just monkeys, counting and basic numeric proficiency has been observed dogs, birds, bees, frogs, and many more. 


There was a lot of hubbub around whether dogs can count or not. Thus, in 2002 a study was conducted, that proved to some degree that dogs understood numbers. However, it was rudimentary and debated. Later, an experiment by Kristen Macpherson, a professor at the Canada University of Western Ontario, showed a well-documented case of a dog very clearly understand numbers. The subject, a dog called Sedona, was placed in front of two magnetic screens with magnets on them. She was trained to knock over the screen with more magnets in order to earn a treat. The magnets were all different sizes from each other so she didn’t just knock down the screen with the most magnets by surface area. After 700 repeat trials of the experiment, there was enough evidence to conclude that Sedona could count. Despite having trouble telling eight magnets apart from nine, she was expertly accurate at telling five from seven or three from four. Additionally, Sedona got better at it with each try, which shows that dogs can learn and improve mathematically. So yes dogs can math - at a kindergarten level, but math is math.


Now here’s a case of frogs using math for sex. Yeah, you read that right. Math- for sex. The Central American male túngara frogs use their species’ ability to judge the numeric value to choose mates! The male frogs begin with a single throaty bellow - if no neighbouring males challenge them then that’s their mating call. However, if a male challenges them, it’s with two bellows. Then they raise the challenge with three - and the competitors further raise it with four. This goes on until they reach their lung capacity and are rapidly firing 7-8 bellows. The reason they do this is that female frogs in the area are listening, and the frog that has the most number of continuous bellows, in the end, is chosen as the desired mate! So these frogs have specific numeric neural pathways that allow them to count and process information to tell which numbers are more desirable - and that is how frog brains use math for sex. 


Birds are an interesting case. Their abilities are so far and wide than assumed before it’s hard to assimilate into one category. However, the highest and most advanced case of a bird doing math is Alex the African Grey Parrot. Alex, who was originally purchased from a Chicago pet store in 1970, was the subject of (humane) avian psychological experiments for 3 decades. He was taught how to do the math and even defined reading abilities by animal ethologist Irene Pepperberg. He could count properly, and his speaking abilities allowed him to say “That’s five” when shown five objects. So when you call someone ‘bird-brained’, you’re not really insulting them at all. 


Ever wondered how bees can travel kilometres away from their hive to collect nectar and still make their way back? They create landmarks in their heads and count them on the way back! The State University of New York at Stony Brook conducted an experiment where they set up a certain number of tents that bees had to cross before they reached their nectar source. When one tent was added or removed, the bees would lose their way or get misdirected. Thus, if there were five tents between a bee and its home, the bees would count to five as a clue to where their hive was. When the number of tents changed, they still stopped at the fifth tent and were visibly disoriented. This shows that they don’t use scent, chemo-receptors or geo-magnetism to get home, they just use landmarks and count like… well like humans. Yes, bees can count too and they use it in their everyday lives.

Maybe it’s not something you think about every day. Maybe you’ve never thought of it before, but animals can and do use math. Mathematics, a complex concept that we think we invented, is actually present in nature and not just as the golden spiral or Fibonacci sequence in the environment, but in animals. These organisms have individually evolved to develop numeric and counting abilities that are a normal part of their biology. So yes, if bees can use math, so can you. 

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