How do animals use numbers for hunting, mating and survival?
From birds to bees, from wolves to frogs, animals use numbers to hunt, find a companion, go home and much more. Researchers believe that this ability to manipulate and represent numbers, known as numerical efficiency, plays an important role in animal decisions that affect their survival chances.
Efficiency in all branches
In a review published in Trends in Ecology and Evolution on March 30, a neurologist at the University of Tübingen, Germany, Andreas Nieder, is exploring the current literature on how different animal species understand numbers and their impact on their survival.
"It is interesting, we now know that numerical competence exists in almost every branch of the tree of animal life," says Neder, who works on different types of trained animals to explore how numbers are distinguished and clarified as well as how numbers are represented and processed within the brain.
He also adds that it is clear that different groups of animals developed this feature independently of other breeds, and this strongly indicates that it has an adaptive value, so the ability to distinguish between numbers must have a strong benefit for survival and reproduction.
Honeybees, for example, can remember the number of parameters that they go through in the search for food in order to find a way back to the cell, and he says that the bees have developed their numerical efficiency with what can be compared in many respects to the numerical efficiency of vertebrates.
This can also be seen in animals that prefer more food than smaller ones, or in animals that form hunting alliances.
Wolves are likely to hunt successfully if they have the right number appropriate to their prey size. With prey such as elk and moose (the massive American gazelle) only about six to eight wolves are required, while bull hunting requires a bundle of nine to thirteen wolves.
Prey also use this concept to protect themselves from predators, as elk that rarely encounter wolves tend to live in small herds, or gather in larger herds to reduce the chance that any individual will become a prey.
Niedermann says they clearly assess the number of individuals in their groups according to their everyday situations, and moreover, it has been proven that numerical competence plays a role in attracting a comrade.
Lack of research
Despite these numerous examples of numerical efficacy in animals, this topic has not received many direct studies. Nedder says many of these behavioral findings are usually collected in the wild as byproducts or incidental findings of
other research questions.
Neder believes that more research is needed to understand the use of numerical competence, and that it is important to better understand the laws of perception and the underlying cognitive and neurological mechanism involved in numerical competence, in order to understand how relevance decisions are made.
To this end, Nieder plans to research how the brain and neurons handle numbers in animals, says I hope I can encourage behavioral ecologists to specifically explore numerical competence in the wild, and doing so also opens up new research areas.