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Math Science

Baby Chicks Have Innate Mathematical Skills 184

Posted by kdawson
from the not-that-kind-of-chicks dept.
Hugh Pickens writes "Chicks can add and subtract small numbers shortly after hatching, says Rosa Rugani at the University of Trento. Rugani reared chicks with five plastic containers of the kind found inside Kinder chocolate eggs. This meant the chicks bonded with the capsules, much as they do with their mother, making them want to be near the containers as they grew up. In one test, the researchers moved the containers back and forth behind two screens while the chicks watched. When the chicks were released into the enclosure, they headed for the screen obscuring the most containers, suggesting they had been able to keep track of the number of capsules behind each by adding and subtracting them as they moved. It is already known that many non-human primates and monkeys can count, and even domestic dogs have been found to be capable of simple additions but this is the first time the ability has been seen in such young animals, and with no prior training in problem solving of any kind."
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Baby Chicks Have Innate Mathematical Skills

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  • by qoncept (599709) on Friday April 03, 2009 @11:43AM (#27446003) Homepage
    They also stress the fundamentals of basketball even though they no can dunk.
  • by srussia (884021) on Friday April 03, 2009 @11:44AM (#27446025)
    They can smell plastic/chocolate residue really good.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by RyoShin (610051)

      This was my thought (except I doubt they used the actual chocolate containers). The smell of plastic is probably overwhelming in a lab, though, so more likely than not their own smell(s) were all over the containers due to spending so much time around them, and they just followed whichever smell was stronger.

      The way to test for this would be to secretly replace the containers with 'placebo' ones that have no smell, and then see if the pattern repeats. That would control for the possibility of them sniffing

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by fuo (941897)
      It also doesn't way what order everything was done in... If there are 3 balls behind screen A and 2 balls behind Screen B and they moved the 3rd ball to screen A last, then maybe the chick just went to the LAST ball it saw move.
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by try_anything (880404)

        Or, instead of counting, perhaps the chicks maintained a rough mental estimate of how much "parent stuff" was behind each screen. With only five balls, about 20% of the "stuff" moved each time a ball moved, so it's not clear why counting would be necessary to pick the right screen. The interesting thing about counting is that it's discrete and precise, perhaps even symbolic, instead of a rough estimate of continuous quantity. By not explaining how the researchers proved that distinction, the BBC article

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by CarpetShark (865376)

      Yep, I thought the same at first. Now though, I'm thinking there are probably a ton of possibilities: other chicks in an earlier, botched, non-double-blind experiment went that way, and left some kind of trail, the researchers laid out the experiment in some way that gave the chicks a clue...

      I don't doubt for a second that most animals can count small numbers, although birdwatchers have been known to run in and out of hides to confuse birds about how many people are left inside. But I'm really sick of see

      • by Chyeld (713439)

        I realize that it's unfashionable to actually read the article, but perhaps you might want to read one of the two that were linked in the summary. That way, when you are bitching about flawed studies, you don't look like an armchair scientist who did decide to pursue their dream of being a hairdresser, and is now regretting it.

        • I realise it's unfashionable to actually contradict someone with facts rather than emotional outbursts, but you might want to try it some time. That way, when you're bitching about flawed posts, you won't look like you're just fighting your inner demons in public ;)

          • by Chyeld (713439) <chyeld&gmail,com> on Friday April 03, 2009 @02:35PM (#27449013)

            Ok then, the study wasn't flawed.

            They did attempt several methods of 'throwing' the chicks off. It didn't work.

            There was no 'trail' for the chicks to follow.

            They accounted for the "maybe they just 'sensed' where the most eggs are", they covered their bases.

            If you had actually read about the study rather than spouting bullshit based on the summary, you'd have known that.

            In a series of simple maths tests, Rugani's team attached a fishing line to each of the plastic capsules and used it to move them behind two screens that the chick could see from behind a clear plastic door. When all of the containers had been hidden, the chick was set free to investigate.

            Rugani's team found that when the chicks went in search of the capsules, they peered first behind the screen that concealed the larger number of containers.

            In a more difficult test, the researchers moved the containers back and forth behind the two screens while the chicks watched. When they were released into the enclosure, the chicks still made for the screen obscuring the most containers, suggesting they had been able to keep track of the number of capsules behind each by adding and subtracting them as they moved.

            • While I disagree that alternate life-choice for these scientists is hairdressing, there is one potential flaw in this research: the assumption about the meaning of a math problem to chicken.

              This test would be hard for many pre-teen humans. It seems to me that there is a more basic instinct at work then adding and subtracting, at least in the abstracted sense.

              I read the article, but not the paper. I assume the paper contains more detail and insight.

      • by CrimsonAvenger (580665) on Friday April 03, 2009 @02:02PM (#27448399)

        I don't doubt for a second that most animals can count small numbers, although birdwatchers have been known to run in and out of hides to confuse birds about how many people are left inside.

        There have been experiments of that sort with crows.

        Apparently crows can keep track of the number of people inside till more than seven go in. After eight or more are inside, if seven leave they behave as if the blind is empty, suggesting very strongly that they can count to seven.

        • by Turken (139591)

          This makes me wonder what would happen if they repeated the experiment with turkey poults. Generally, newly hatched turkeys are so stupid that if you don't show them how to drink (by putting other birds in their enclosure or dunking their heads in the water trough) they'll soon die from dehydration.

        • by tonyreadsnews (1134939) on Friday April 03, 2009 @02:47PM (#27449177)
          That's because most cows only have a 1 byte counter in them.

          You have to get the ones that were abducted (but not eaten) by aliens which have been upgraded.
          • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

            by Anonymous Coward

            A one byte counter would get them to 255, I believe you mean a 3 bit counter.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by Hatta (162192)

          I wonder if they distinguish between a little more than 7 and a lot more than 7. If you sent 40 people into the blind, and had 7 come out, would they still think it's empty?

  • by Bovius (1243040) on Friday April 03, 2009 @11:46AM (#27446051)

    If these guys were programmers, in 6 months we'd have a baby chick Turing machine up and running.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    What the researchers fail to consider is this experiment's youtube Adorability Factor.

    • The "youtube Adorability Factor" increases greatly if they are filmed up close with a wide angle lense. For an extra boost the baby chicks wear funny hats and/or sunglasses.

      Oblig South Park reference: "cuuuute", "super cuuuuute"

  • by Centurix (249778) <`moc.liamg' `ta' `xirutnec'> on Friday April 03, 2009 @11:47AM (#27446065) Homepage

    We have duck called Mersenne that quacks in primes.

  • by A. B3ttik (1344591) on Friday April 03, 2009 @11:47AM (#27446067)
    Who else could go for a bucket of KFC right about now?
  • by GPLDAN (732269) on Friday April 03, 2009 @11:48AM (#27446089)
    Did somebody say hot chicks? That are good at math?

    I knew you Slashdot guys were cool...
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday April 03, 2009 @11:49AM (#27446101)

    can they count before they're hatched?

  • They seem to have about as much grasp of math as some one the chicks in my last calculus class.
  • by ajlitt (19055) on Friday April 03, 2009 @11:53AM (#27446161)

    Convince the chicks to put the containers in the incinerator.

    • I bet it'll be easier if you explain it to them that 8 out of 10 lab engineers believe that the container is most likely incapable of feeling much pain.

  • News flash (Score:5, Funny)

    by momerath2003 (606823) * on Friday April 03, 2009 @11:54AM (#27446179) Journal

    Chicks dig math. Slashdot rejoices until they RTFA.

  • by Beelzebud (1361137) on Friday April 03, 2009 @11:57AM (#27446227)
    What's to say the chicks just aren't recognizing a simple pattern? Just because they could see that the larger group had moved from one side to the other doesn't mean they were counting, it just means they recognize the pattern, and went to the one they were familiar with.
    • by pilgrim23 (716938)
      Methinks some broad assumptions were made prior to experimentation: I would have thought a chick would bond with -A- Mother not the largest number of mothers. But then I don't work in the social welfare field....
  • Or are the chicks simply recognizing "more" rather than "fewer" or "less"?
    • by SatanicPuppy (611928) * <Satanicpuppy@g m a i l .com> on Friday April 03, 2009 @12:11PM (#27446445) Journal

      The difference is semantic. Obviously they're not doing arithmetic as we usually think of it, but if they're able to keep track of shifting quantities that's math.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        The difference is not just semantics. If they are making decisions based on qualitative notions (more) as opposed to quantitative (2 more) then it is a difference between doing discrete mathematics vs. reacting to an analog signal. The latter of which is not what we normally consider math, at least in terms of the subject's thought process.

        It would be interesting to use different sized eggs to create scenarios where one group has more individual eggs but the other group has a higher total surface area (m
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by profplump (309017)
          In the general sense, the ability to determine that A > B requires arithmetic. Without arithmetic you could only look at two piles and say "they both contain many items"; the ability to say "pile A contains more items than pile B" requires some form of arithmetic, even if it is very simply.

          And I'm not sure where you got this idea that arithmetic is purely discrete. For the purposes of calculation we often treat our observations that way, but in reality most arithmetic involves quantities that were not de
        • by Ironica (124657)

          It would be interesting to use different sized eggs to create scenarios where one group has more individual eggs but the other group has a higher total surface area (maybe volume) of eggs. If the chicks still chose the group with more individual eggs than one could make a strong case that they are capable of counting.

          But the inverse is not true... if they chose the larger eggs, you could not infer that they were incapable of counting; their preference for the larger eggs could be independent of an accurate perception of which is greater quantity.

          Of course, they could have a preference for the smaller eggs independent of quantity as well, so it wouldn't really rule out or confirm anything one way or the other.

        • by Chris Burke (6130)

          The difference is not just semantics. If they are making decisions based on qualitative notions (more) as opposed to quantitative (2 more) then it is a difference between doing discrete mathematics vs. reacting to an analog signal. The latter of which is not what we normally consider math, at least in terms of the subject's thought process.

          That's great and all, but in the final phase of the experiment, they obscured both piles of eggs behind screens so that the chicks could not see the piles. The chicks c

      • by Stray7Xi (698337)

        It also depends on success rate they observed. I can be right more often then not with an algorithm that involves no counting. Select one unique object and follow it as it moves between screens (ignore all others) and go towards that that one. If there is 3 on one side and 2 on other, I'll be right 60% of time but clearly I have no concept of counting. Are the items similar enough they can't be distinguished? (Do they tilt a certain way on string, different heights?)

        Plus with small numbers you can use

    • Uhhh if you move 7 to one side then 6 back that is counting. All numbers are for is comparison to one another. I'm still rooting for the smell theory.
    • Indeed. I wonder if a lot of animals would naturally, for example, choose a large pile of food over a small pile of food. Of course, then one gets into the smell stuff, too.
      • by Thelasko (1196535)

        I wonder if a lot of animals would naturally, for example, choose a large pile of food over a small pile of food.

        You just gave me an idea to make a computer out of the food chain. [wikipedia.org]

        I wonder what would happen if we put 42 pieces of corn in a field full of birds?

      • by Ironica (124657)

        Indeed. I wonder if a lot of animals would naturally, for example, choose a large pile of food over a small pile of food.

        Actually, you could do an experiment with food to determine this.

        You have a similar setup, where the animal watches you put a smaller quantity of food in one bin, and a larger quantity of food in another bin. Make sure it's discrete pieces of food, and a small number; say 3 in one and 5 in the other. The bins themselves are opaque. Then you allow the animal to choose to go to one bin or the other first.

        I'm envisioning a bin where only ONE piece of food is visible/available at a time... a FIFO food queue,

    • by RyoShin (610051)

      Since they had a screen over the second part, if this was by deduction then the chicks were keeping track of something in their head. It could have been just "more", but without being able to see both groups at once this would still require some sort of math to compare the groups from memory.

    • by MozeeToby (1163751) on Friday April 03, 2009 @12:20PM (#27446611)

      In the final part of the experiment, the put screens up in front of the two groups so the chicks couldn't see them, then moved balls back and forth between the groups letting the chicks see how many were being moved each time. The chicks were able to keep track of how many were in each pile based on how many had moved from one to the other. That seems to indicate not just counting and greater than/less than but also addition and subtraction.

      Unless of course they just went to the smelliest pile like many people have speculated.

    • by nedlohs (1335013)

      The article is from 4/1 but anyway.

      How can you do that without counting?

      A and B are the two locations and you can't see the what is in each, but you can see the balls move between them. Lets also say you know they are empty and there's a ball source with 5 balls you can see, the following happens:

      S->A
      S->B
      S->A
      S->A
      S->B
      A->B
      A->B
      B->A
      A->B
      B->A
      B->A

      How do I know which of A and B has more balls if I can't count?

  • by tepples (727027) <tepples@nOSpAM.gmail.com> on Friday April 03, 2009 @12:00PM (#27446313) Homepage Journal
    Kinder Surprise [wikipedia.org] isn't sold in the United States because FDA food safety regulations prohibit the importation or sale of candy that encloses something inedible. The closest counterpart in the United States is probably Wonder Ball [wikipedia.org], a Nestle product with hard candy inside a hollow ball of milk chocolate.
    • Actually, not true; Ethnic stores carry them, which leads me to believe they're under less stringent regulations than other groceries.

      Also, Wonder Balls DID have toys in them originally; they switched to the hard candy after people complained. Figures.

      • by tepples (727027)

        Ethnic stores carry them, which leads me to believe they're under less stringent regulations than other groceries.

        That, or just "it's not illegal if you don't get caught." Perhaps the ethnic stores you frequent just haven't been ratted out yet by someone working for Nestle, bitter about Wonder Ball being forced to switch to hard candy.

      • They are not sold legally in the US. I know its kind of hard to believe that the US Customs could be so porous as to let in such a dangerous and illegal product such as a chocolate covered toy. Or that our law enforcement would be so poor as to allow such items to remain on store shelves.
    • FDA food safety regulations prohibit the importation or sale of candy that encloses something inedible.

      That explains the unavailability of these from the Whizzo Chocolate Company [wikipedia.org]:

      • Crunchy Frog - The finest baby frogs, dew-picked and flown from Iraq, cleansed in finest-quality spring water, lightly killed, and then sealed in a succulent Swiss quintuple smooth treble cream milk chocolate envelope and lovingly frosted with glucose.
      • Ram's Bladder Cup - Fresh Cornish Ram's bladder, emptied, steamed, whipped
    • From your Wikipedia link:

      Kinder Eggs are sold all over the world excluding the United States, where the 1938 Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act prohibits embedding "non-nutritive items" in confections.

      1938? I wonder what the real intent of this law was. I thought that babies only starting choking on small objects (or rather that lawyers discovered that they do) in the '60s or '70s.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by smellsofbikes (890263)

        >1938? I wonder what the real intent of this law was.

        It was probably part of the ongoing reaction to the publication of Upton Sinclair's book "The Jungle", where he documented/alleged pretty horrific working conditions and product control in the Chicago meatpacking industry, all of which were later factually verified by federal investigators except for his claim that workers who fell into boiling rendering tanks were left there and their rendered fat sold along with the cattle fat. (And that was after t

        • by Hatta (162192)

          Also, the banning of 'non-nutritive items' is not actually a ban but a threshold: there is an acceptable quantity of insect parts allowed in foods.

          Insects are actually quite nutritious.

      • by Ironica (124657)

        Does this mean that Cracker Jacks are not confections according to the FDA? In that case, what on earth ARE they?

  • Occam's Razor - Simple explanation: More containers stink more of chicken poop.
  • by Chris Burke (6130) on Friday April 03, 2009 @12:11PM (#27446443) Homepage

    Some years ago an experiment appeared on /. where they tested how roaches would hide in shelters. Roaches naturally like to hide in the biggest groups that they can. The researchers found that if they put 50 roaches into an enclosure, and put two shelters in the enclosure, one that could hold 50 and one that could hold 40, all the roaches would pile into the big enclosure. If they put two enclosures that could hold 40, the roaches would split into two groups of very close to half (like 26 and 24) in the two enclosures, with roaches actually moving from one to the other in order to balance it out.

    Not counting, but it did demonstrate they had some notion of group size and size equivalence, and that they considered more than their own benefit (otherwise a roach would not have left an enclosure that could have held more roaches), possibly even communicating to do so.

    It's weird how smart animals with tiny tiny brains can be.

    • by Rockoon (1252108)
      Seems to me that a random walk (err, random 'lets go and visit') would explain the balancing, even if you started with a 40:10 situation.

      In the 50:0 situation, there is nobody to visit on the other side.
      • by Chris Burke (6130)

        In the 50:0 situation, there is nobody to visit on the other side.

        But it didn't start that way, it only ended that way. And why would randomly walking roaches stop walking unless they knew there were no roaches in the other location? And why would they stop walking once the two small enclosure scenario reached equilibrium, unless they were capable of seeing that equilibrium had been reached between the two groups? That's also the part that suggests possible communication, because not all of the roaches w

    • How disgusting.
  • False assumption? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by memorycardfull (1187485) on Friday April 03, 2009 @12:13PM (#27446505)
    Associating a certain screen with more incidents of objects recently disappearing behind them doesn't necessarily indicate the ability to add or subtract. The idea that moving the objects back and forth is confusing to the chicks and thus requires math to sort out the answer might be a false assumption. If the chick is responding to the stimulus of objects disappearing behind a screen, and the effect of the stimulus is cumulative as more objects disappear behind the screen and the effect of this stimulus is strongest for the most recent stimuli and decreases over time I think that the result would be what is observed in the experiment. I think what is more interesting about this experiment is that the chicks have an innate sense of object permanence which is an ability human beings are not born with.
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      I am loathe to reply to my own comment, but I believe that my conclusion that the experiment indicates that chicks have an innate sense object permanence rests on false assumptions as well. I would just like to retract that for the sake of consistency.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by TinBromide (921574)
      True, if chickens flock, then there's a safety in numbers instinct going on as well. There may not be math, but an egg moving behind screen A means that screen A has more safety warm and fuzzies than screen B. As more eggs move behind either screen A or screen B, they might get more fuzzies associated with either screen. However, and this is the big assumption made, while we clearly differentiate between math and warm and fuzzies or a desire to go somewhere, the chickens may be processing with a flock menta
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by rpillala (583965)
      Isn't this accumulation of stimuli the way counting works?
      • Response to accumulating stimuli may be part of the way that humans count; however, to say that counting involves response to accumulating stimuli does not mean that response to accumulating stimuli involves the ability to count. If this were the case any creature that responds to accumulating stimuli could be considered to have the ability to count.
    • by Chuckstar (799005)

      Exactly what I was thinking.

      Also, they should test this with different sized containers to see if it is the number of items or cumulative size of the items that they are reacting to.

      I once saw a write-up where someone was testing (IIRC) dogs. Up to some number, dogs could recognize a number of objects. Above that, they went by area/volume. In other words, dogs could pick the picture that had the most items up to about seven, or something like that. For greater numbers of items, they tended to pick the pictu

    • by Ironica (124657)

      Associating a certain screen with more incidents of objects recently disappearing behind them doesn't necessarily indicate the ability to add or subtract. The idea that moving the objects back and forth is confusing to the chicks and thus requires math to sort out the answer might be a false assumption. If the chick is responding to the stimulus of objects disappearing behind a screen, and the effect of the stimulus is cumulative as more objects disappear behind the screen and the effect of this stimulus is strongest for the most recent stimuli and decreases over time I think that the result would be what is observed in the experiment.

      So how does their ability to distinguish between obscured quantities based on incremental changes differ from arithmetic? I don't think the scientists are suggesting that they are using abstract symbols to represent quantities, and applying additive and subtractive properties to them... but simply that, when given a problem ("Which screen hides a greater quantity?"), they can arrive at a correct result.

      Because the items are moved one by one, rather than split into a group and moved all at once, it implies

  • delicious > "innate skill"
  • Bad science. (Score:2, Insightful)

    by DaveV1.0 (203135)

    This does not show that chicks can add and subtract. All this shows is that chicks have some concept of more and most. That is all.

    • Re:Bad science. (Score:4, Insightful)

      by SydShamino (547793) on Friday April 03, 2009 @01:45PM (#27448149)

      And how do they know how many is more when they can't see them?

      Move five behind screen A. Move two over to behind screen B. Chick can't see any of them, but decides to go to screen A.

      Move five behind screen A. Move three over to behind screen B. Chick can't see any of them, but decides to go to screen B.

      Repeat for more complicated patterns and more moves before the chick is freed to move.

      The only way they could know that there are more behind a screen is to sense them (and chickens have poor senses of smell and no ESP) or to have made mental adjustments of "more" and "most" based on movement of items. And that's addition and subtraction.

      • by DaveV1.0 (203135)

        How do we know it is not judging on the strength of smell?

        • by ral8158 (947954)

          Birds have notoriously poor senses of smell, and this takes place in a lab where the smell of plastic would probably be overwhelming to that ability anyway.
          Could you read the article, please, instead of automatically assuming the researchers are dumbasses who don't know how to formulate an experiment?

  • Chicks can add and subtract small numbers

    skipped to the /. comments before reading any further...

    shortly after hatching.

    DANG! oops, wrong kind of chicks

  • by Rude Turnip (49495) <valuation@@@gmail...com> on Friday April 03, 2009 @12:49PM (#27447135)

    Whenever I throw something and my dog catches it, he's inherently working out the position of the object and its velocity in order to catch it.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      My dog can do calculus too. Unfortunately he is afflicted with paranoia so he just lets it hit the floor and gives it good looking over before he decides to put it in his mouth. Then he catches it the second time. LOL.

      My previous one was a wolf-hybrid and she could tell if it was something she wanted to put in her mouth while the object was in flight - even with something the size of half a pea and moving fast she would always make the correct choice, 100% percent of the time. That always amazed me. That
    • by Ironica (124657)

      Whenever I throw something and my dog catches it, he's inherently working out the position of the object and its velocity in order to catch it.

      Your dog can do calculus when you set up a ball-throwing machine, and, from the angle of the chute and previous experience with velocity of objects, the dog goes to the correct location to catch the ball before its thrown (even though you're on a new field she's never seen before).

  • try the same test after they grown blonde hair
  • Its likely that many animals, particularly those of the prey kind, can estimate relative quantities. More instances of the 'friend' type means greater security. More of the 'foe' increases the odds of being eaten.
  • Birds have a genetically specified latent memory for flight [sciencedaily.com] so maybe these baby chicks have a latent memory for counting too.
  • ...but what about baby dudes?

  • So maybe MS will soon be able to dispense with that troublesome outsourcing and hire true American programmers for chickenfeed.
  • If they were really smart, they'd figure out a way to not be so tasty! And by the way, the original article was posted on April 1.

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