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Elephants and their Shocking Math Abilities

Elephants and their Shocking Math Abilities

By Helen Jupiter, MNN

When it comes to brainpower, elephants may have more than just long memories. The BBC reports that the sizeable pachyderms may have a host of other exceptional mental skills that have not been undocumented. Included among these potential abilities are an ear for voices and languages, as well as an eye for numbers.

A team of researchers from the University of Sussex, set out to discover how many elephant calls an individual elephant can remember, calls that are sometimes heard from as far as several kilometers away. Through a playback study focusing on the elephants of Amboseli National Park in Kenya, they determined that elephant matriarchs can learn to recognize at least 100 other unseen elephants by voice alone.

The Sussex team also observed behavior that led them to wonder whether the Amboseli elephants can discriminate between different human languages, specifically the Maa language of the Masai, the language of the Kamba people, and the English they hear spoken by the region’s tourists. Informal observations have shown an anxious, tense reaction to Maa, and a calm, relaxed reaction to English, but the Sussex researchers explain that it is still too early to know for sure, as they have just begun controlled study of the elephants’ reactions to recordings.

Meanwhile, a study out of Japan points to elephants’ remarkable numerical skills, such as the ability to distinguish between two similar quantities of objects. Elephants outperformed monkeys, apes, and even human children when tested on their aptitude for recognizing the difference between two quantities of objects — for example five from six.

Primates and children are capable of identifying the difference between smaller numbers of objects but are limited when it comes to discriminating between larger numbers. In contrast, the elephants involved in the study were equally good at telling five from six as one from two.


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