Science Says Dogs Can’t Count but Cats Might, While Frogs and Chickens Are Math Whizzes


A recent study caused waves in the pet world when it suggested that dogs might have an intelligence edge over cats, but don’t jump to conclusions so quickly. Quite a few other studies have shown that dogs don’t have great mathematical abilities, especially in comparison to wolves. Meanwhile, other less traditionally “smart” animals like fish and frogs, according to new research, are able to count. So, too, can chickens and some monkeys, although it’s hard to count on the research that’s been done with house cats thus far.

Keep reading to learn more about which animals can count, but don’t bother your goldfish for help with your math homework just yet.

Counting Cats Is a Mystery

The jury is still out on felines, mainly because they are so difficult to control in a lab environment. Can cats count? As with most things, the answer might be only if they feel like it. Christian Agrillo of the University of Padova in Italy studies cat cognition. He told author of the book Citizen Canine: Our Evolving Relationship with Cats and Dogs, David Grimm, that many times “We had to say to the owners, ‘Sorry, we can’t use your cat. It’s not interested in the experiment’ … I can assure you that it’s easier to work with fish than cats.”

In Agrillo’s numerical competence study, which is basically the ability to distinguish small quantities from large ones, cats were tested by placing different amounts of black dots above desirable and undesirable objects, such as full or empty plates of food. Apparently when the cats did decide to cooperate, they were as good at mathematical tests as fish are (see the swimmers’ math assessment below). But these “good” trials were few and far between. Often the cats just walked away. Additionally, when Agrillo dug in deeper to see if the felines could truly distinguish the amount of dots (not just the overall “size” of the visual grouping), cats came up short. That said, he remains unconvinced that cats can’t count and thinks we should keep studying them.

Additionally, researchers also suspect cats may have an abstract conception of numbers. This assumption is because mother cats often notice when a kitten is missing and will go look for it. Accordingly, it has been suggested that cats may be able to count up to six or seven, though three or four is more likely.

Dogs Can’t Count, but Wolves Can

Humans may have gained a best friend when wolves were domesticated some 19,000 years ago, but dogs seem to have lost some special cognitive abilities in the trade off. According to a 2014 study published in Frontiers in Psychology, wolves consistently outperformed domestic dogs when selecting cans filled with pieces of cheese. Both groups of animals’ counting abilities were tested by showing them the cheese being dropped into cans, and then watching to see if they selected the cans with the most cheese. Wolves proved more adept at this every time, and researchers don’t believe it has to do with scent.

“Canines have an extraordinary sense of smell compared to humans, which could theoretically allow them to discriminate at least quantities of lower ratios based on olfaction,” said Dr. Friederike Range, one of the authors of the study from the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna. “However, there is little indication that canines would rely on their olfactory cues in such a situation if not specifically trained to do so. Moreover, in a study comparing the performance of our wolves and dogs in a local enhancement task, we found that, while both species primarily relied on visual information, the dogs actually used their sense of smell more than the wolves. Finally, during our experiment, we never cleaned the tubes between trials or animals, which likely lead to an overall strong cheesy smell in both tubes.”

Range did, however, mention wolves have better eyesight than dogs which could have given them a leg up.

Monkeys Do Math

A January 2018 study involving rhesus macaque monkeys (and crows), showed that “after training, rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta) and carrion crows (Corvus corone) proficiently discriminate the absolute values of visual numerosities from 1 to 5 and even from 1 to 30 items,” writes Andreas Nieder. In fact, the primates exhibited the ability to identify visual patterns from 1-9, as well as auditory instances such as hearing a specific sound three times. Previous studies have shown that other primates, like chimpanzees, can also do fairly simple math.

Fish Learn to Count in Schools

Fish don’t get a lot of credit for intelligence in the pet world, so perhaps it would most surprise you to learn of our aquatic friends’ unique ability to differentiate when it comes to numbers and sizes. There have been a slew of studies with different species of fish, but a 2011 study conducted by Brian Butterworth, Laura Piffer and the aforementioned cat researcher Christian Agrillo looked at numerical system capabilities in guppies. They somehow managed (even they don’t quite understand how the fish do it!) to get 200 guppies to decide which shoal they wanted to be in according to size. You see, guppies are known to prefer larger shoals. But to accurately determine whether the fish really were counting, the team got the guppies to judge shoal size one fish at a time.

Frogs Are Arithmetic Friendly

If you find potential partners who are good at math a turn-on, you’re not alone. Female frogs count the number of pulses in a male frog’s croak. They can do this for “phrases” up to 10 notes long, says Butterworth. “The way you can identify your species of frog is the number of pulses in their croak,” he told the BBC.  Much like a voice can be attractive or a deal-breaker in human relationships, lady frogs assess male croaks for duration and volume as a measure of their potential mate’s worth. It is proposed that male frogs can count up to 4 – 6 “chucks” (or distinct croaks) in their mating calls.

Do Count Your Chickens

Chickens, geese, hens, crows — despite what you may have heard, they’re all quite smart as far as animals go. In fact, a bunch of papers published over the past ten years by Rosa Rugani at the University of Padova have shown that newly hatched chicks and adult chickens can absolutely count and do basic arithmetic. A previous study, conducted in 2005 by Siobhan Abeyesinghe at the University of Bristol in the U.K., showed that when chickens were presented with two keys, one that gave brief access to food and another that gave prolonged access, the birds were much more likely to peck at the latter key which gave a bigger food reward. Chickens have been able to out-perform toddlers in math tests, keeping track mentally of additions and subtractions when a game was shuffled around.

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The aforementioned species are not the only ones in the animal kingdom who can count. Elephants, lions, hyenas, horses, zebrafish, mosquitoes and many more have demonstrated math abilities, according to a recent New York Times article. As researcher Brian Butterworth noted, the ability to count must be a basic life skill for more than just humans. “It’s as useful to them as it is to us,” he told the BBC.




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