Saturday, 23 August 2008

Asian Elephant Solves Mathematical Problems

Elephants are good at mathematics. Image from Wikipedia.

Joel Kontinen

An Asian Elephant named Ashya knows that three plus four is more than one plus five. Naoko Irie, a researcher at the University of Tokyo presented the findings of a recent elephant study at the International Society for Behavioral Ecology's annual meeting in Ithaca, New York.

As reported by news service, the elephant knew that when four apples were added to a bucket with three apples, it held more fruit than a bucket in which five apples were added to one apple.

It was no coincidence. On average, elephants chose the bucket with the most fruit 74 per cent of the time.

Previous research has shown that several animals have the ability to count. In addition, with little coaching, parrots for instance are known to come up with the right solution to mathematical problems.

Elephants have rather big brains. Irie suspects that this trait, together with their “evolutionary kinship to other ‘smart’ animals” may account for their skill in mathematics.

Natural history museums and science magazines usually present chimpanzees as being cleverer than all other animals. This is due to evolutionary assumptions of humans and apes being closely related. In 1969 Science reported on a female chimpanzee named Washoe who understood over a hundred sign language “words”.

This began a boom that had the intention of proving that humans did not have a monopoly on language. In the late 1970s a chimpanzee who was named Nim Chimpsky learnt 125 signs. The name was an obvious parody of linguist Noam Chomsky, who thought that there was an enormous gap between the linguistic abilities of man and apes.

Apes were unable to learn much more words. However, a parrot known as Alex, who died in 2007, was able to use over 150 words. This was a big surprise for evolutionists. A bird with a small brain should not have beaten apes in language skills. Moreover, recent research indicates that magpies are able to recognise themselves in a mirror.

Elephants are known to be intelligent animals who have excellent memories and even mourn the dead. Now, together with the parrot Alex and magpies they are also calling into question the neo-Darwinian teaching of apes being special.

Elephants are better artists than apes. View video here.


Callaway, Ewen. 2008. Add elephants to the growing menagerie of animals that can count. news service. (20 August).

Wynne, Clive. 2007. Aping Language. A skeptical analysis of the evidence for nonhuman primate language. E-Skeptic. (31 October).