Are Ants Smarter Than Fifth-Graders at Math?

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(Credit: jeltovski)

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Ants are smarter than many grade-school kids, at least when it comes to math, suggests a new study in the journal Behaviour.

"Ants are smarter than a 5th grader; they do math!" Els van Egmond of the journal's publisher, Brill, wrote in a press release.

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For the paper, scientists Zhanna Reznikova and Boris Ryabko surveyed a wide variety of different species in terms of their ability to count and complete basic math tasks. The researchers write that highly social ant species, such as redwood ants, "can communicate information about numbers to colony members and also perform simple arithmetic operations."

This latest paper appears to be an overview, but Reznikova of Novosibirsk State University and Ryabko of the Siberian State University of Telecommunication and Computer Science have been studying ant math skills for some time now. (Another paper can be downloaded here.)

For some of their prior experiments on ants, the researchers set up various maze-like contraptions holding food in particular spots. Here are some sketches showing what the objects looked like (Credit- Zhanna Reznikova and Boris Ryabko):

 

 

The experiments were such that the ants couldn't just communicate by leaving behind a scent trail, I believe. In order to alert other ants to the location of food, "presumably they (other ants) may pass messages not about the number of the branch but about a distance to it or about the number of steps and so on," the scientists write.

"Even if it is so," they add, "this shows ants as being able to use quantitative values and pass the information about them." Other research shows that both ants and bees perform "abstraction, extropolation," and other math skills, the researchers note.

Ants, they continue, can "perform simple arithmetic operations with small numbers. We suggest that applying ideas of information theory and using the natural communication systems of highly social animals can open new horizons in studying numerical cognition."

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The scientists additionally highlight other studies demonstrating math abilities in various animals. Birds usually ace math, with pigeons, crows and parrots being particularly good at number-related puzzles. (Although my guess is this talent must carry over to other birds. These three birds may just be easier to study.) Non-human primates, such as chimpanzees, do OK at math, but ants may be even more precise.

If only ants could be trained to do taxes!