Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Fish Can Do Math!

Check out this article describing new research that demonstrates fish have the ability to count and do simple quantitative comparisons.

Italian researchers tested the ability of mosquito fish to discriminate the number of fish in a group. They found that when escaping from a simulated predator, the fish consistently preferred to joint a group of four other mosquito fish over groups of one, two, or three mosquito fish. Such behavior would have obvious survival benefits. There is safety in numbers, and so evolution seems to have selected for the ability to do such simple numerical analysis.

The researchers also found that Mosquito fish were able to pick the bigger of two schools, when both had more than four fish, if the larger one had at least twice the number of fish as the smaller. For example, a mosquito fish could tell a school with 20 fish was bigger than one with 10, but not that a school of 20 fish was bigger than one with 18 fish.

The professor who led the research said that fishes' numerical abilities were "on par with the numerical abilities of monkeys and human infants between six and 12 months old, who were both able to visually count small numbers and less accurately estimate larger ones."

He went on to say "The most interesting thing is that fish performance is very similar to what is observed in adult humans who possess a very limited vocabulary for numbers." He gave the example of how people of an Amazon culture without words for numbers beyond five respond very similarly when asked to do quantitative comparison of groups with a large number of items.

The article mentions how other species, like pigeons, raccoons and monkeys, can improve their math skills with training. I wonder if we might devise a way to train fish to do more interesting math. Then it would really be Fish School!

--Dean

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