Jun 17, 2019 | Updated: 11:54 AM EDT

Think That Chicks Are Just Plain Cute? Well It Turns Out That They Have a Knack for Numbers Too

Jan 30, 2015 08:32 PM EST

Chicks & Number Lines
(Photo : University of Padova)

While it may take children a couple of years to learn the true values of arithmetic, a new study conducted by ethologist Dr Rosa Rugani, from the University of Padova, reveals that newborn chicks can not only recognize number patterns but also place them in ascending order from left to right. In fact, while the cognitive ability to count may seem like an acquired trait taught to us in school, Rugani's recent experiments prove that even those with bird brains can display a knack for "number mapping".

The series of experiments, published this week in the journal Science, tested three-day-old chicks' abilities to discern higher numbers from lower numbers when confronted will multiple squares representing a given target. By associating the given numbers with food rewards, the newly-hatched chicks began to investigate in search of grainy treats. What researchers found was that though the chicks did not know what to expect when confronted with identical numbered squares, then tended to veer to the left when they saw lower numbers and veer right when the numbers were larger.

"A number is not either small or large in an absolute sense, but rather it is smaller or larger with respect to another number" lead author of the study, Rugani says. "The [chicks] associate small numbers with the left space and larger number with the right space, and this resembles the humans' behavior in responding to numbers."

Sensing the relative sizes of the numbers, in comparison to the original target card, the chicks displayed an ability for advanced cognition and reasoning skills suggesting their ability to visualize a "mental number line" (MNL). Used commonly by humans, these MNL quantify numbers based on ascending order from smallest (on the left) to the largest (on the right). And with this ability engrained in the chicks, researchers now believe that the habit of visualizing numbers on these number lines evolved millions of years ago, before the ancestor of humans and modern-day birds diverged.

Though continued studies into this spatial strategy will be necessary to further determine which creatures have this ability, and when it was potentially derived in our vast evolutionary tree, the researchers believe that their study is definitive in its findings of an innate instinct to associate order with numbers.

"Our results indicate that a disposition to map numerical magnitudes onto a left-to-right oriented MNL exists independently of cultural factors and can be observed in animals with very little non-symbolic numerical experience" Rugani says. "[In fact], spatial mapping of numbers from left to right may be a universal cognitive strategy available soon after birth."

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