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Can Animals Count?

One... Two... Three. Humans can count but can animals?

yellow angelfish swimming on a blue background

Photo: Marc Haserodt (Flickr)

Angelfish are just one animal species that appears to be able to count.

Dear A Moment of Science,

I read somewhere that chimps, horses, and dolphins can do simple math, such as counting. What other animals can count?

Counting Fish

Believe it or not, fish can count, too. According to one study, angelfish can tell the difference between larger and smaller amounts, and can count up to three.

When they’re in a new environment, angelfish tend to take cover by joining the largest possible group of nearby fish. Spanish researchers ran an experiment where angelfish were given a choice between schools consisting of larger and smaller numbers of fish.

The angelfish were consistently able to choose the larger school as long as it was twice as large as the smaller one. When the groups varied less in size, the angelfish’s choices were less consistent.

In other tests, the researchers found that in certain conditions the fish were able to tell the difference between numbers as small as two and three.

Other Counting Animals

Angelfish are not an outlier. Besides chimps, horses, and dolphins, many other animals have shown an ability to distinguish between larger and smaller groupings. Rodents and pigeons are accomplished counters, and even salamanders have some mathematical skills.

Which goes to show that at least some of the traits that we assume make humans unique such as counting are common to many living things. We humans may be able to do math at a higher level than other animals, but when it comes to the basic building blocks of working with numbers, we’re more connected to the rest of the animal kingdom than we may believe.

Read More:

  • Fish Can Count – Up To Three! (MSNBC)
  • Doug mckinney

    This isn’t a picture of a marine angelfish. It is a yellow tang (zebrasoma flavescens). If you can’t fact check something that simple, how can I trust anything else in your article. And telling the difference between “more” and “less” isn’t exactly counting.

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