Elephant Study Reveals an Innate Ability for Math, Rivaling Humans

Authai the elephant is the queen of counting.


When the arithmetic-performing celebrity horse Clever Hans was exposed as a phony in 1907, we lost faith in the math skills of our animal kin. But new research shows Clever Hans’ owner should have opted for elephants instead. A study published Monday in the Journal of Ethology suggests that Asian elephants’ math ability could put them head and shoulders — and trunk and ears — above most other animals, even the ones we think are especially clever.

In this new study, a team of scientists show that Asian elephants (Elephas maximus) have an inherent ability to count that surpasses the skills of other animals. The authors say the findings, which focused on an elephant living in Japan’s Ueno Zoo, are the “first experimental evidence that nonhuman animals have cognitive characteristics partially identical to human counting.”

This skill has just been demonstrated by just one elephant: a 14-year-old female named Authai. She was the only elephant of three that successfully learned to use a large touchscreen designed to test numerical abilities. In the studies, Authai was presented with two images of different-sized fruits clustered together, and her task was to choose the image showing the larger number of items. In the end, she correctly completed this task 181 out of 271 times — a success rate of 66.8 percent.

Examples of the figures presented in the task.

Irie, N.

The scientists, who work at the Graduate University for Advanced Studies and the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, determined that Authai’s ability to choose the correct image was not affected by magnitude (how many fruits), distance (how close she was to the board), or ratio of the comparisons (the difference in number of fruits). Instead, she studied the various images and meticulously chose the figures containing the highest numbers of fruits — dealing with the numbers in a way that the scientists write “is quite different from that of other animals.”

George Wittemyer, Ph.D., is a professor at Colorado State University and the scientific director of the charity Save the Elephants. Wittemyer, who was a not a part of this research, tells Inverse that “the work offers an interesting insight into the numerical abilities of Asian elephants.” He suspects that in wild settings, where elephants have to make foraging decisions, the ability to discern between volumes presented numerically would only be enhanced.

This is Authai using the touch screen.

Ethological Society and Springer Japan KK

“I wonder if these skills are related to their advanced social networks, where they recognize individual relationships among numerous individuals with their recognized spatial cognitive abilities,” Wittemyer says. “Because vision is known to be a tertiary sensory modality for elephants, I would imagine numeric sensitivity would be enhanced if assessed with one of their primary sensory systems [like olfactory modalities].”

Related: Scientists are studying why elephants don’t develop cancer:

No one is sure why Asian elephants have counting skills that are similar to our own and so different from those of other elephants. It’s possible their unique ability evolved independently; lead author Naoko Irie, Ph.D., explained Monday that Asian and African elephant species diverged more than 7.6 million years ago, so its highly probable they have different cognitive abilities.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that animals can count: elephants aside, researchers know that lions only attack prides that outnumber their own, and guppies can distinguish between four guppies and five. Nevertheless, the cognitive underpinnings that allow these animals to do so are still debated. Asian elephants are seemingly more advanced than the rest of the animal kingdom, and scientists who study them are likely counting their blessings.

Many animals demonstrate numerical competence even without language. However, their representation is mainly based on inaccurate quantity instead of absolute numbers. Thus, their performance on numerical tasks is affected by the distance, magnitude, and the ratio of comparisons (i.e., as distance decreases, magnitudes increase, or as ratios increase the accuracy of discrimination decreases). We report that Asian elephants’ numerical representation is quite different from that of other animals. We trained three Asian elephants to use a touch-panel apparatus and one female successfully learned to use the apparatus. Next, a relative numerosity judgment task was presented on the screen and the elephant was asked to touch, with the tip of her trunk, the figures with the larger numbers of items. The numbers of items in each figure ranged from 0 to 10. We found that her performance was unaffected by distance, magnitude, or the ratios of the presented numerosities but, consistent with observations of human counting, she required a longer time to respond to comparisons with smaller distances. This study provides the first experimental evidence that nonhuman animals have cognitive characteristics partially identical to human counting.
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