Can Animals Count?

Remember the trained seal at the circus who could answer questions in arithmetic by blowing on a horn? Or the horse who would tap his foot the rigth number of times when his trainer asks him to count?

The truth is that these animals were not really counting! What happened was the seal or the horse would notice a sign from the trainer it might be a movement of the head or lips or eyes and this sign would tell him when to stop blowing the horn or tapping his foot.

Of course, many animals can tell a larger quantity from a smaller quantity. For instance, many animals can pick a pile with six pieces of food instead of a pile with five pieces of food. Children who have not learned how to count yet, can do the same thing.

But being able to notice difference in quantity is not the same thing as counting. Scientists now believe that certain birds and animals can actually count. In one experiment, a pigeon was offered one grain at the time.

All the grains were good to eat, but the seventh grain was always stuck to the dish. After a while, a pigeon learned to count to six grains, and when the seventh grain was offered it refused to peck at it. This was real counting!  

In another experiment, a chimpanzee was taught tp pick up one, two three, four or five straws and had over the exact number of straws that was asked for. But this was as far as this chimpanzee could count. It always made mistakes above five.

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