The brain of an elephant is certainly mysterious. In addition to their renowned memory, elephants are now also being recognized for their maths skills—at least based on a recent study performed by Japanese researchers at SOKENDAI, the Japanese association for the promotion of science. According to the researchers, Asian elephants might even earn the prize for best animal mathematician.
The study, published in Journal of Ethology, proved the pachyderms’ mathematical prowess: elephants can count, and in a manner much closer to humans than any other animal. Naoko Irie and her colleagues demonstrated that Asian elephants can even process relatively large numbers and ratios.
Older studies had showed that several animal species are able to differentiate quantities. However, it often appeared that their logic was based on inexact ”estimations” of quantities, rather than on an ability to quantify objects absolutely.
Over Two-Thirds of the Tests Passed
To test the elephants’ abilities, Irie and her colleagues developed a new method of measuring how the animals evaluated quantities. They then trained Authai, a 14-year-old Asian elephant living in the Ueno Zoo in Japan.
The experiment in a nutshell: on a video screen, Authai had to choose between two images and select the one that showed more fruit, of which there were between 0 and 10 per image. In addition to varying in quantity from screen to screen, the fruit presented could also vary in size—this helped ensure that the elephant did not simply choose the image in which the fruit took up more space on the screen. The elephant received a reward for each correct response.
Out of 271 attempts, Authai selected correctly 181 times: a 66.8% success rate. That’s a pretty impressive score, and one that couldn’t have been achieved if the elephant had simply selected at random.
An ability that distinguishes them from African elephants
“We found that her performance was unaffected by distance, magnitude, or the ratios of the presented numerosities, but consistent with observations of human counting, she required a longer time to respond to comparisons with smaller distances," Naoko Irie explained.
"This study provides the first experimental evidence that nonhuman animals have cognitive characteristics partially identical to human counting,” Irie continued, specifying that this unique ability is not shared by African elephants. The two species separated over 7 million years ago.
Nevertheless, this experiment still needs to be repeated with other individuals. Two other Asian elephants from the same zoo, Artit and Surya, did not pass the first tests for reasons that the researchers have yet to determine. Maybe they simply didn’t feel like participating. Other studies will soon be done to see if the results of this first study can be replicated.