Beasts do the math

M Ramesh | Updated on: Jul 09, 2022
What’s the thread count: Research shows spiders can perform simple arithmetic processes much like humans

What’s the thread count: Research shows spiders can perform simple arithmetic processes much like humans | Photo Credit: marthadavies

Animals sure can tell many from few, say experts

In the American anthology film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, one of 2018’s big hits, an impresario sees his collections dwindle because of competition from another whose show is a chicken that can perform addition and subtraction. In another episode of the anthology, a gold prospector in a remote wilderness climbs a tree to steal some eggs from an owl’s nest, dithers when he sees the bird watch him ruefully from another branch, changes his mind and takes just one egg instead of all, muttering to himself, “After all, how high can a bird count?”

Well, can animals and birds count? Brian Butterworth says they can.

The author of Can Fish Count? What animals reveal about our uniquely mathematical minds is convinced that non-human living beings are not without numerical discrimination abilities. They sure can tell many from few. All kinds of animals discern the difference between 10 and 15, the Discover magazine quotes Butterworth as saying.

Butterworth experimented by putting a fish in a large tank that had other fish of the same species at one end. He found that some individual fish always swam towards its ilk, while other individual fish didn’t. When he put the smart and dull fish together, the dull followed the smart — just as humans do.

Now Butterworth is teaming up with neuroscientists and molecular geneticists to study the genetic mechanisms underlying numerical ability.

Another researcher, Dr Vera Schlussel, at the University of Bonn, has published a study titled ‘Cichlids and stingrays can add and subtract ‘one’ in the number space from one to five’, in which she concludes that “the ability to ‘count’ and to perform simple arithmetic processes is not just present in humans, non-human primates and birds, but also in invertebrates such as honey bees and spiders and in fish.

Published on July 10, 2022
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