A phenomenon that is delightful to witness, but has aroused suspicion in audiences are the performing animals that seem to be able to count. On example in history is “Clever Hans,” a horse owned by teacher Wilheim van Osten that would perform simple math equations and counting by tapping its foot. Audiences were delighted, but eventually, Wilheim was exposed for giving subtle clues to Clever Hans to stop tapping his hoof.
Can animals really count?
Does Clever Hans exposure mean that there is so the concept of counting in the animal kingdom? No, in fact, scientists have uncovered evidence that suggests that some creatures, outside of humans, are capable of counting.
For example, there are studies where dogs were presented with a certain number of treats (like four or five). The treats were then covered up with one removed. When a smaller number of treats were revealed, the canines went searching for the missing treat. This experience suggests that dogs are able to count up to small numbers.
Alternative math in animals
Since animals are unable to communicate with words or numbers in the way that humans are, scientists are unable to prove definitively that animals can count. However, there are multiple examples in the animal world that suggest that certain creatures can grasp the number of items or movements.
In one experiment, black bears were given two images with differing numbers of dots. The bears were able to distinguish that the two images were different with little to no trouble. This suggests that bears have a basic understanding of quantity, even if they can’t exactly count to 10.
When we get closer to humans genetically, the ability to count and understand math expands. In a clinical setting, chimpanzees were taught by an Ohio University professor to count. Those same chimps took the new counting skill and learned how to add and subtract on their own. Rhesus monkeys performed just as well as the University of Rochester human college students. In a continuation of that study, researchers tested the Rhesus monkeys and pigeons together. Pigeons were able to perform the simple math calculations nearly as fast as the monkeys.
Smaller, less evolved animals show signs of counting as well. For example, the desert-ant has been observed what looks like counting steps to track its wanderings in the wild. This suggests that counting may be a natural subconscious attribute in a wide range of Earth dwelling creatures.
With multiple scientific studies, it has shown that while we may communicate and understand the concepts differently, select animals are able to count and even perform basic arithmetic.