This question seemed to hold a lot of debate in our recent Discovering Mathematics lecture and it intrigued me. Before the lecture, I was very narrowed minded on this issue and thought no of course not. However, there has been some pretty convincing arguments against my opinion which for anyone with the same opinion as me I am going to have a look into to broaden my mind a little.
The biggest influence that made me think that animals possibly could count was Ayumu the Chimpanzee who could correctly identify the order of number 1 through to 9. He could do this by just a few seconds looking at the numbers, which were in a completely random order, before they were covered up. Ayumu could also still correctly order numbers 1 through to 9 even if there were numbers missing from the pattern. This made me think that Ayumu could count to nine.
Although there were some pretty strong arguments against this as well. The fact that 30 students and 1 lectures who can all count could not do the challenge made me think does this chimp just have a great memory? Is the chimp really counting or does he just remember the patterns through rigorous training? However, the idea that he could do this even though there was no logical pattern to the numbers and there were just random digits between 1 and 9 on the screen then he was able to put them into a numerical order showed that this could have been related to the idea he knows the shapes of number 1 through to 9 and could put them in an order. There must have been some cognitive process going on – either counting or something similar to counting – to show that he could put the numbers in the correct order without every number being there. You can watch Ayumu impressively memorising where the number were and in the correct order below and have a shot at the same challenge below to see if you could manage it. Just remember 30 students and 1 lectures couldn’t do it together! Below is Ayumu showing you his skills and here is the Ayumu Counting Challenge Game link.
Another convincing, all be it strange and kind of cruel, argument that animals could count was that scientists now believe that ants count their steps back to their nests. Scientists glued on match sticks to the ants legs, leaving them with longer legs, or cut the ants legs, leaving them with stumps/shorter legs. The ants with the longer legs would walk straight past their nests where as the ants with shorter legs would not make it back to the nests. The scientists have put this down to ants having “internal pedometers” (which was first proposed in 1904) that they count the steps it take them when they leave the nest and they then go back using the same amount of steps to go back to their nest. Therefore, the ants with short legs would take the same amount of steps, but smaller steps, back to the nest and not make it back where as the ants with the stilts would take the same amount of steps and make it past their nests because of their new, longer legs. (Carey, 2006)
Another argument with two opposing sides to whether animals can count is the idea that mother ducks know when they have ducklings missing. One argument suggest that mother ducks can count. The idea that the mother duck knows that there is one missing as she does not have the same number of ducklings that she should. On the other hand, others argument that potentially the mother duck waits if there is a duckling missing is because she recognising the scent or features of a duckling is missing rather than knowing that there is a particular number missing.
Overall, I am now more convinced there is the possibility that animals could possibly count but there are also counterarguments that still support the view that animals cannot count.
Carey, B. (2006) When Ants Go Marching , They Count Their Steps (Accessed: 7/10/15)