Elephants are counting geniuses

Asian thickets recognize quantity differences as well as we do

Pretty clever: Asian elephants have a sense of quantity. © Hasachai / istock
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More or less? Asian elephants have a surprisingly good sense of numbers. As an experiment shows, they can easily understand the difference between two depicted amounts of fruit - even if these are only slightly different. The clever pachyderms cut off as well as otherwise only humans. They are the undisputed count kings in the animal kingdom according to the researchers.

Not only humans, but also many animals have a sense of quantity: What is "more", what is "less"? This can be appreciated, for example, monkeys, crows, dogs and even squid. Even Asian elephants master this arithmetic, as experiments suggest. But how good are the pachyderms really in it?

Fruit to count

To find out, Naoko Irie from the University Sōkendai in Hayama and their colleagues have now put the 14-year-old elephant lady Authai to the test. For this purpose, the scientists trained the animal native to a Japanese zoo to solve tasks on a screen with a touch function. Authai was shown two pictures with zero to ten treats - including bananas, watermelons and apples.

The elephant's cow should then touch that image with the trunk, on which more of the fruity objects were to be seen. As a particular difficulty, the fruits were presented in different sizes. This way, Authai could not simply compare the quantities based on the size of the area filled with illustrations. Each time she correctly identified the larger amount of food, Authai received a reward.

Authai at the count test © Japan Ethological Society and Springer Japan KK, part of Springer Nature 2018

More or less

The decisive test showed that the elephant unerringly chose the right image in 181 out of 271 attempts - a success rate of 66.8 percent. The astonishing thing about it is that while other animals get more and more problematic as the amounts increase or the numbers to be compared are closer together, these factors did not affect Authai's hit rate. display

However, it takes more time for such supposedly difficult tasks: the smaller the difference between the quantities, the longer the decision-making took. On the other hand, surprisingly, there was no effect on the amount - and even people usually need more time if the quantities to be protected become larger.

As good as the human

"Thus, Asian elephants are so far the only animals next to humans, where the accuracy in the assessment of relative quantitative ratios of the difference in the quantities or their size is independent, " write the researchers. This means that the elephants have a numerical ability that only humans otherwise possess - and thus differ from their African relatives.

The scientists are not yet sure how the pachyderms work when counting. It is possible that their sense of numbers partly corresponds to the two mechanisms with which we human beings recognize numbers: quantities up to four are recorded at a glance, without having to count the objects individually. For larger quantities, on the other hand, we either have to count or only roughly guard the differences.

A separate system?

Because Authai does not need more time for larger amounts than us, another mechanism could be behind it. The team speculates that elephants may have developed their own unique system over the course of evolution to estimate quantities as accurately as possible. Further studies will now show how the numerical sense of the thickets could work concretely. (Journal of Ethology, 2018; doi: 10.1007 / s10164-018-0563-y)

(Springer Nature, 23.10.2018 - DAL)