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How an animal processes numbers influences its odds of survival

Bees count landmarks as they fly in search of food. Their numerical competence helps them find their way back home. Photo by Creative Commons
Bees count landmarks as they fly in search of food. Their numerical competence helps them find their way back home. Photo by Creative Commons

March 30 (UPI) -- While some animals are quite adept mathematicians, most can at least differentiated between larger and smaller amounts. Animals must be able to comprehend numbers -- to known when more is more -- in order to find a meal and a mate, or even to find their way home.

According to a new study, published this week in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution, an animal's numerical competence influences their chance of survival.

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For the paper, German researcher Andreas Nieder surveyed the available scientific literature on the numerical competence of various species, including frogs, wolves, bees and more.

"Interestingly, we know now that numerical competence is present on almost every branch on the animal tree of life," Andreas Nieder, neurobiologist at the University of Tuebingen, said in a news release. "Different groups of animals obviously developed this trait independently from other lineages and that strongly indicates that it has to be of adaptive value. So the capability to discriminate numbers has to have a strong survival benefit and reproduction benefit."

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Honeybees can count landmarks as they travel to food in order to successfully navigate their way back to the hive. Previous studies have even shown different honeybee populations use unique language dialects to communicate distances to their peers.

"The last common ancestor between honeybees and us primates lived about 600 million years ago," Nieder said. "But still, they evolved numerical competence that, in many respects, is comparable to vertebrae numerical competence."

While bees can count travel markers, other animals are able to differentiate between larger and smaller amounts of food. Wolves are able to count both the size of their pack and the number of prey they're targeting. They know a small group of elk require only a fewer hunters, but a group of bison necessitate extra wolves for a successful hunt.

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Prey count, too. Elk either stick to small herds, diminishing the odds of encountering wolves, or gather in very large groups, increasing their odds of survival should the group be attacked.

"So obviously they are assessing the number of individuals in their groups for their everyday life situations," Nieder said.

Counting is woven in the courting and mating process of many species, as well. Female frogs, for example, count a specific feature of a male's mating song. The frog that produces the most "chucks" during his song, wins a chance at mating.

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According to Nieder, these instances of numerical competence haven't been comprehensively compiled and analyzed.

"Many of these behavioral findings in the wild have usually been collected as by-products or accidental findings of other research questions," he said.

Scientists have perviously studied the mathematical abilities of a variety of animals, including birds, apes and insects, but often these lab experiments provide little ecological context. Nieder hopes his newest paper will inspire scientists to look more closely at the connections between numerical competence and the hunting and mating decisions made by animals in the wild.

"I hope I can encourage behavioral ecologists to specifically explore numerical competence in the wild, and, in doing so, also open new research fields," Nieder said.

In future studies, Nieder plans to investigate the neural patterns animals use to process numbers in order to better understand how numerical competence influences animal behavior.

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