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Pigeons as smart as monkeys about numbers?

In “Pigeons on Par with Primates in Numerical Competence” (Science, December 23, 2011), Damian Scarf et al. find,

Although many animals are able to discriminate stimuli differing in numerosity, only primates are thought to share our ability to employ abstract numerical rules. Here, we show that this ability is present in pigeons and that their performance is indistinguishable from that displayed by monkeys.

You have to pay to know any more, but it sounds about right.

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One Response to Pigeons as smart as monkeys about numbers?

  1. You have to pay to know any more, but it sounds about right.

    There are plenty of free news articles describing the research. Just Google ‘pigeon math’.

    Here’s a quote from the lead investigator, Damian Scarf, taken from the Los Angeles Times:

    Q: How do you test a bird’s ability to understand a mathematical concept?

    A: The pigeons respond on touch screens. Pictures come up on the screen, the pigeons peck at them, and the touch screen registers their response.

    In this case, we had three images: One had one object in it, another had two objects, and the third had three objects. We trained the pigeons to peck the pictures in ascending order.

    We gave them lots and lots of these sets, with different shapes and sizes of objects, basically just reinforcing the one-two-three rule. They got a reward every time they got a correct response — a hopper gave them a little basket of wheat that they could peck from.

    We trained them for a long, long time. Then we tested them with tiers of images, with numbers that were outside of that range, to see if they could transfer that ascending rule to novel numbers such as four and five and six and seven. They were able to do that as well as monkeys were, which was really surprising.

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