Animals Can Count and Use Zero. How Far Does Their Number Sense Go?

Jordana Cepelewicz in Quanta:

Practically every animal that scientists have studied — insects and cephalopods, amphibians and reptiles, birds and mammals — can distinguish between different numbers of objects in a set or sounds in a sequence. They don’t just have a sense of “greater than” or “less than,” but an approximate sense of quantity: that two is distinct from three, that 15 is distinct from 20. This mental representation of set size, called numerosity, seems to be “a general ability,” and an ancient one, said Giorgio Vallortigara, a neuroscientist at the University of Trento in Italy.

Now, researchers are uncovering increasingly more complex numerical abilities in their animal subjects. Many species have displayed a capacity for abstraction that extends to performing simple arithmetic, while a select few have even demonstrated a grasp of the quantitative concept of “zero” — an idea so paradoxical that very young children sometimes struggle with it.

More here.