Elephants can do Maths

The results of a new animal cognition study have demonstrated that Asian elephants have math skills similar to humans.


 

Asian elephants could be the math kings of the jungle

Experimental evidence shows that Asian elephants possess numerical skills similar to those in humans

Overview

Asian elephants demonstrate numeric ability which is closer to that observed in humans rather than in other animals. This is according to lead author Naoko Irie of SOKENDAI (The Graduate University for Advanced Studies and the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science) in Japan. In a study published in the Springer-branded Journal of Ethology, Irie and her colleagues found that an Asian elephants’ sense of numbers is not affected by distance, magnitude or ratios of presented numerosities, and therefore provides initial experimental evidence that non-human animals have cognitive characteristics similar to human counting.

The study

In this study, the researchers aimed to replicate the results of previous research that already showed that Asian elephants have exceptional numeric competence.

Irie and her colleagues developed a new method to test how well the animals can judge relative quantity. They successfully trained a 14-year old Asian elephant called Authai from the Ueno Zoo in Japan to use a computer-controlled touch panel. The programme was specifically designed to examine the cognition of elephants, so that any unintended factors potentially influencing the results could be ruled out.

Authai was presented with a relative numerosity judgment task on the screen, and then had to indicate with the tip of her trunk which one of the two figures shown to her at a time contained more items. These ranged from 0 to 10 items, and contained pictures of bananas, watermelons and apples. The fruit were not all presented in the same size, to ensure that Authai did not make her choices purely on the total area that was covered with illustrations per card.

The results

Authai was rewarded whenever she chose the figures featuring the larger number of items. This she did correctly 181 out of 271 times — a success rate of 66.8 per cent. Her ability to accurately pinpoint the figure with the most fruits on it was not affected by the magnitude, distance or ratio of the comparisons. Authai’s reaction time was, however, influenced by the distance and ratio between the two figures presented. She needed significantly more time to make her selection between figures where relatively smaller distances and larger ratios were presented.

“This study provides the first experimental evidence that nonhuman animals have cognitive characteristics partially identical to human counting.”

-Dr. Naoko Irie of SOKENDAI, Graduate University for Advanced Studies and the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science


 

Journal Reference: Naoko Irie, Mariko Hiraiwa-Hasegawa, Nobuyuki Kutsukake. Unique numerical competence of Asian elephants on the relative numerosity judgment task. Journal of Ethology, 2018; DOI: 10.1007/s10164-018-0563-y 

Overview


 

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