Ravens are social butterflies, crows are master problem solvers, chimpanzees beat humans when it comes to memory tests, and the honey badger is basically the animal Houdini – but it is the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) that wins the prize for being the best mathematician in the animal kingdom.
This is according to a study recently published in the Journal of Ethology, which found that Asian elephants display numerical ability closer to that of humans than other animals.
Researchers at The Graduate University for Advanced Studies and the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (SOKENDAI) report that the elephants' sense of numeracy appears to be unaffected by distance, magnitude, or ratios. This is unlike other animals, whose numeracy tends to be based on inaccurate quantity and not absolute numbers.
"This study provides the first experimental evidence that nonhuman animals have cognitive characteristics partially identical to human counting," lead author Naoko Irie said in a statement.
Admittedly, the result is based on the performance of one elephant, 14-year-old Authai. Two more elephants were put forward for the experiment but neither made it to the final stage.
Authai was trained to use a computer-controlled touch panel to select the picture with more items of fruit. Each round she was given two choices and won a reward if she picked correctly. To make sure Authai wasn't "cheating" and basing her decision on the total area covered in the illustration rather than the total number of illustrations, the researchers used fruit of various different sizes.
In the end, Authai was able to guess correctly 181 out of 271 times. This gave her a success rate of 66.8 percent, which is high above chance.
"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," Irie explained.
However, further study will be needed to explore these findings, as this experiment was based on the skills of just one elephant. It could be argued that it was undermined by the fact that the two other elephants (Artit and Surya) did not make it to the test sessions, either because they performed poorly in the initial stages of the experiment or because they simply couldn't be bothered. So it will be interesting to see if future experiments support their conclusions.
If you are wondering if African elephants share their Asian cousins' knack for maths, Ire says you shouldn't be so sure. The two species diverged over 7.6 million years ago so there is a good chance that they have evolved to have different cognitive abilities.