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redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports – Your Universe Online
Baboons can be as accurate as human children when it comes to discriminating between different quantities of various objects, experts from the University of Rochester and the Seneca Park Zoo claim in a new study.
Jessica Cantlon, an assistant professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the university, and colleagues observed eight olive baboons between the ages of four and 14 in more than 50 separate trials which had the creatures attempt to guess which cup was filled with the most peanuts.
The investigators placed between one and eight peanuts into two different cups, always making sure that the numbers were different. The baboons were allowed to have all of the peanuts in whichever cup they selected, whether it contained the greatest number of treats or not.
In situations where the relative difference between the amount of peanuts in each cup were relatively high, the primates successfully selected the larger amount approximately 75 percent of the time. When the amounts were closer (such as six in one cup and seven in the other), their accuracy rate dropped to 55 percent.
“In this study we’ve shown that non-human primates also possess basic quantitative abilities. In fact, non-human primates can be as accurate at discriminating between different quantities as a human child,” Cantlon said Friday in a statement. “This tells us that non-human primates have in common with humans a fundamental ability to make approximate quantity judgments. Humans build on this talent by learning number words and developing a linguistic system of numbers, but in the absence of language and counting, complex math abilities do still exist.”
Reporting in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, Cantlon and her colleagues explained that the pattern helps solve a longstanding mystery surrounding animals´ understanding of the concept of quantity. While experts have speculated that non-humans use two different systems to evaluate numbers (one based on keeping track of discrete objects and the other based on comparing approximate differences between counts), the new study shows that the baboons relied on the latter approach when making their choices.
The researchers explain that the baboons were able to consistently discriminate pairs with larger numbers provided that the difference in the amount of peanuts in the cups was relatively large. That would not have been impossible under the first method, meaning that they used the second one, which is known as the analog method.
Previous research has shown that human children who have not yet learned how to count use these kinds of comparisons to select between number groups, as do adults when estimates are needed quickly, the researchers said. Furthermore, studies with other animals have revealed that birds, lemurs, chimpanzees, and even some fish possess a similar ability to estimate relative quantity, they added.
“A lot of people don’t realize how smart these animals are,” said co-author Jenna Bovee, who is the elephant handler and the primary keeper for the baboons at the Seneca Park Zoo. “Baboons can show you that five is more than two. That’s as accurate as a typical three year old, so you have to give them that credit.”
“In the same way that we underestimate the cognitive abilities of non-human animals, we sometimes underestimate the cognitive abilities of preverbal children,” Cantlon added. “There are quantitative abilities that exist in children prior to formal schooling or even being able to use language.”