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Chicks Can Do Math

on April 4, 2009

BBC News: “Baby Chicks Do Basic Arithmetic” We had to check to make sure it wasn’t an April Fools’ prank, but yes, it seems baby birds can do simple math!

In the study, described in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, chicks were exposed to small plastic balls from birth. The chicks always try to stay close to the objects they are reared with (usually their mother), a process known as “imprinting.” Thus, in the experiment, the chicks wanted to stay near the plastic balls.

Study coauthor Lucia Regolin of the University of Padova explained, “We had already found that the chicks have a tendency to approach a group containing more of these familiar objects.” In this experiment, a chick was kept in a clear-fronted holding box as five of the plastic balls, suspended by fishing line, were slowly hidden—three behind one screen, two behind another. Upon release, the chicks walked to inspect behind the screen where the greater number of balls had been hidden.

The chicks wanted to stay near the plastic balls.

In a complementary experiment, the researchers went a step further: after the balls had been initially hidden behind the screens, they transferred a few balls from one screen to the other (as each chick watched). Once again, the chicks walked to the screen hiding the greater number of balls, indicating that the chicks had arithmetically worked out where the majority of balls had ended up. “They still chose correctly, adding up the numbers based on groups of objects they couldn’t see at that moment,” Regolin said.

In a separate study, another team of researchers determined that fish—mosquito fish, to be specific—can also perform basic math. Ten mosquito fish were trained to associate a special door with a certain number of shapes. The special door allowed the socializing mosquito fish to move from an isolated tank into a tank with their peers. The exact shapes by the special door varied during the training, but the number of shapes remained constant.

After their training, the mosquito fish were isolated to see if they would still swim through the “right” door—the door with the correct number of shapes—even without their friends waiting for them. The fish selected the correct door more frequently than random chance would predict.

Thus, both fish and chicks seem to have the ability to “count” in a rudimentary sense, with the chicks able to recognize basic addition and subtraction in principle. They join primates as well as dogs as having shown such abilities. However, in the case of the chicks, never before has an animal been shown to display such capabilities from birth and without prior training.

The intelligence of animals is sometimes fascinating and often puzzling, but in each case it reveals how God designed animals with a variety of incredible mental skills. Finding these abilities in non-primates disputes the notion that chimp intelligence verifies evolution. Nonetheless, the researchers revealed their presuppositions by claiming that the fish’s ability “has evolutionary underpinnings.”

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