Math isn’t just for humans. Animals can count, too!

By Mathnasium | August 11, 2021

It’s no secret that animals are amazing in all kinds of ways, but how many of us knew that they could do math? Studies show that many different species are able to determine quantity to help them solve a variety of problems, such as acquiring food, navigating, defending themselves, and even finding a mate.

From honeybees to hyenas, counting helps animals survive.

While there is still much to be learned about the math skills of various animals, a certain amount of computing is known to occur, even in the tiniest of brains. An experiment in the 1990s found that honeybees remember the number of landmarks they pass as they travel between a food source and their hive. The desert ant counts steps to track how far it has traveled from its nest on foraging trips. And frogs use counting to find a mate. How? They can tell if a species is one of their own by the number of pulses in their croak, so a female will count the number of pulses to make this distinction. Even fish have exhibited math capabilities. Studies of guppies show that they will choose to join shoals— or groups of fish — with larger numbers, because they know it will be safer for them.

One of the most basic forms of counting is being able to tell if one quantity is larger or smaller than another, and Serengeti lions have exhibited this ability. They’ll determine if their group outnumbers another by listening closely to the roars of other nearby prides before choosing to fight. Which means they’re using math for the benefit of their survival and reproduction. When researchers used similar experiments to test hyenas, these animalstook their math abilities even further by counting both the number of sounds and the number of individuals making them.

Gray wolves need specific numbers in their pack to hunt, depending on the prey. When it’s elk they’re after, six to eight wolves are needed to be successful; for bison, nine to thirteen are necessary. And their prey use numbers as well. Elk will separate into smaller herds to avoid encountering wolves or combine into larger herds to minimize their chances of being hunted. This strategy is known in biology as “safety in numbers.”

Some animals are better at counting than others.

It appears that primates have the most advanced numerical skills of all. In the late 1980s, chimpanzees impressed researchers with their ability to add up the number of chocolates in two food bowls and correctly judge which was larger. Twenty years later, rhesus monkeys were shown to quickly count numbers of objects on a computer screen.

Scientists have yet to understand why some animals have only the simplest math capabilities and others seem to be highly sophisticated. For example, why are wolves able to determine small versus large numbers, yet dogs are unable to do so? The explanation that makes the most sense is that dogs have been domesticated, so they lost the ability to count when they no longer needed it. Which is not to say they aren’t smart — any dog lover knows otherwise — they just aren’t math smart.

Staying connected through math.

It’s been long established that humans share many traits and talents with the rest of the animal kingdom, and we can now add math to that list. How wonderful for us to know this, so we can watch nature a little more closely and witness it for ourselves. What happens when we examine a spider web, a V-formation of birds in flight, or a pod of dolphins in the waves? We can certainly see math in all of it, and it’s highly likely that these amazing creatures do as well.

1. Virginia Morell, Many wild animals ‘count’ and it helps them survive to another day, National Geographic, March 30, 2020.
2. Katie Silver, The animals that have evolved the ability to count, BBC Earth, August 26, 2015.