This question was asked during our Discovering Mathematics lecture and created quite a debate/discussion on the subject of can animals really count, the same way as humans, or are they learning to ‘count’ in a different way? Before the lecture continued past the question I gave my opinion that animals can’t count like a humans can but perhaps an animals owner can teach the animal to recognise the shape of a number or teach it a command which represents a certain number. So the animal doesn’t actually understand the concept of a number but rather a command.
As we went through several animals and their abilities to seemingly count I was still stuck to my initial opinion. The first animal we looked at was a horse called ‘Clever Hans’, who could apparently count using hoof stomps to signal a number. Yet we examined this example closer to conclude that the horse was just understanding that a command from his master that meant to start stomping his hoof. The horse didn’t understand “what’s 2 + 3?” but rather the action the master did with their hand which singled to the horse to start and stop stomping his hoof when the horse got the the correct number.
Clever Hans’s understanding is similar to how a dog learns commands. A dog associates the word “roll over” the the physical action of rolling over. The same with Hans associated a movement from his master with the physical tapping of his hoof.
We looked at lions, ants, bees, robbins, chicks and chimpanzees too. Ants made me question my opinion on if animals can count a little bit. Ants are clever animals as they know exactly how many steps it takes them to get them to their nests. An experiment was done to test their mathematic ability. the first test was to see if the ants would stop short of their nest if a few of their legs were chopped off. The hypothesis was correct, they did indeed stop short. The second test was to see if the ants would go beyond their nest if match stick were to be added/stuck onto their legs. Again the hypothesis was right, the ants carried on past their nests. Scientist put this down to ants “internal pedometers”. The ants could travel back and forth in the dark or blindfolded and they would still make it in exact steps back to their nests (Carey, 2006). Did this change my overall opinion? Not yet.
We finally came onto the most convincing of all examples. The chimpanzees. In particular Ayumu the chimpanzee. We watched a video of the chimpanzee managing to tap the numbers 1-9 in the right order. Now my initial thought was “oh the chimp was simply just learned the look of each number as a symbol and has been taught their order”. But then the video clip continued to show that the chimp can still order the number 1-9 when the numbers only flash up for less than a second, then covered up, and still manages to remember the order they were in. Our class tried this and we definitely didn’t do as well as the chimp did. The video then also showed the chimp doing the same thing but this time there was gaps where numbers were missing…So does the chimp really know how to count or does it simply have a very good memory and has been taught forcefully to remember the order, even with gaps?
Ultimately, I was almost convinced. Trust me I was close to believing it. But I still don’t think that animals see numbers and understand them the same way we do. There’re so many arguments to say they can or can’t. If only they spoke english and we could ask them, then we would know for sure.
Carey, B. (2006) When Ants Go Marching , They Count Their Steps (Accessed: 9/10/17).