Elephants and Their Surprising Math Skills

on September 6, 2008

PhysOrg: “Elephants No Dumbo At Sums: Japanese Researcher” Move over (again), chimpanzees: it’s not only you in the animal kingdom that has calculable intelligence.

Okay, so the intelligence of chimpanzees may not quite be up to humans’, and neither is the intelligence of elephants, the subject of this item. Still, elephants, along with primates, cetaceans, and some birds, offer some spectacular examples of intelligence God designed in the animal kingdom.

Discerning between two larger numbers or between two close numbers is a much more difficult challenge.

In this case, Asian elephants showed off their mathematics skills under the tutorship of the University of Tokyo’s Naoko Irie. The experiment involved their “favorite” food—either apples or oranges—and required the pachyderms to select between buckets of the fruit.

Irie tested two elephants: 30-year-old female Ashya from Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo, and 38-year-old Mito from Kyoto. In testing Ashya, researchers first dropped three apples into one bucket and five into another. Ashya could not see into the bucket or otherwise feel the quantity of apples. Next, researchers dropped two more apples in each bucket, then allowed Ashya to choose one of the two buckets. Five times out of six, she chose the bucket with more apples. Irie repeated the test with Mito, replacing the apples with oranges, Mito’s favorite fruit. She was also successful the majority of the time.

Irie also tested the elephants when the margin between the original fruit and the added fruit was only one (for example, five-plus-one versus three-plus-four). Thus, even when the margins were slim—or when the total numbers were larger—the elephants performed well.

“I couldn’t believe it at first: they could instantly compare numbers like six and five,” Irie told Agence France-Presse. Although many animals are able to choose the larger of two numbers, the AFP report points out, discerning between two larger numbers or between two close numbers is a much more difficult challenge.

Often, the intelligence of primates—especially chimpanzees—is portrayed as a reminder of their evolutionary proximity to man. It’s important to remember that God created several highly intelligent animal kinds, and elephants (and the original elephant kind, which probably included mammoths and mastodons) certainly qualify as one! For more on elephant intelligence, see News to Note, November 4, 2006, item #3, and News to Note, August 16, 2008, item #6.

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