Animals can recognise numbers as well as children, study finds

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As humans, we don’t even need to think about counting, we just do it. It is a vital skill that we often take for granted. Studies show that honeybees, guppies, dogs and hyenas can act on number stimuli.

Silke Goebel, an associate professor in psychology at the University of York, says the limit to numerical skills in infants at 10 months old is shared with animals who have significantly smaller brains, The Mirror reports.

With counting, we think ‘one, two and three’ which involves the use of language, which infants and animals don’t understand. It is said that they can only detect number changes between one and three, like when one item is removed from a group of three. This is known as the two number system.

This early numerical system helps infants and animals perceive the number of a small set of objects, without actually having to count them. It is said that they rely on the ‘attentional working memory system’ which is usually overwhelmed by numbers greater than three.

Understanding numbers gives animals a clear advantage when it comes to getting their food, naturally, the animal is going to go for the opportunity where there is more food, than less.

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Animals can recognise numbers as well as children, study finds. (Image: Getty)

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According to a study by PNAS, infants and animals respond to the approximate number of elements through sight and sound, only human children and adults can estimate number differences at a ratio.

So, what does this all mean? Well, us homosapiens and animals are pretty similar in terms of numerical skills, but it is the numerical language that sets us apart.

Numbers play a generally vital part in an animal’s life, whether it be hunting prey in groups or seeking shelter in large groups.

It is understanding number symbols that make humans the most superior though, because how many times have you seen a dog writing down its times tables? It’s not entirely clear when humans started writing down number symbols, though it no doubt links back to our neanderthal relatives 60,000 years ago.


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Today, most of us use Hindu-Arabic numerals to count, which uses ten symbols (0-9) in a positional system, to represent an infinite set of numbers.

Many children and adults struggle with grasping mathematics, but language plays a central role in how humans calculate and how humans count.

With that being said, the research shows that humans and animals do share some numerical abilities, helping them make smart decisions about where to feed and where to take shelter.

Additional reporting by Emily Sleight.

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