Fish can count, too

One, two, three...

Timeline, 2008: We tend to think of a few things we do as being uniquely human. And then we keep finding other organisms that can do them, too. Walking on two legs? Meet the orangutan, walking upright in the trees. Tool use? Crows can make a hook to fish meat out of a tube. The ability to talk? Seems that Neanderthals might have had that, also. OK, well what about counting, having number sense? Baby chickens share this trait with us. To the growing list of other animals that do as well—which includes dolphins, rats, and some monkeys—you can now add the mosquitofish.

Mosquitofish vs Munduruku

Yes, apparently fish can also count, in some cases as well as infants ages 6 to 12 months. In fact, when compared to some natives of the Amazon, the Munduruku, which have limited number language, the fish may even be comparable. The Munduruku people see no value in having a construct for counting beyond five. The mosquitofish, on the other hand, can count about that high and estimate with even higher numbers.

Number sense: It’s not just for people any more

Number sense can be broken down into three paths of perception. We can visually estimate what we see, as people do when they report crowd counts for huge parades or demonstrations. We can also visually count individual units, as we might do just looking at the fingers on one hand. And humans also have the ability to verbally count, theoretically to infinity given sufficient time. While mosquitofish obviously do not count out loud, they do appear to have visual estimation and counting abilities.

Neither is sexual harassment

Their estimation abilities first emerged as a result of sexual harassment. Researchers studying the guppy-like fish noticed that when a male harassed a female, the female fish would take refuge with a group of fish nearby. If there was a choice of groups, or shoals, of different sizes, she would choose the larger of the two. Of course, her ability to tell “larger” might have had nothing to do with actual numbers but instead with the area that the fish occupied. To assess this possibility, researchers performed a number of complex experiments. Their results showed that the females were not relying in occupied area to figure out which group had more fish. They really were using visual number estimation to decide.

In fact, they seem to use ratios in their determinations, but the ratios need to meet a threshold of difference for the estimations to work. For example, a mosquitofish seems able to distinguish a group of 16 fish as being larger than a group of 8 fish, a ratio of 2:1. But the fish cannot tell a group of 12 from a group of 8, proving unable to distinguish a 3:2 ratio.

Estimating, counting: These fish are brilliant

With lesser numbers, up to about four, however, the fish discard visual estimation and rely instead on actual visual counting. In what really was a clever set of experiments, the research team let an individual female fish spend an hour exploring two areas of an aquarium. In one area, she could see a group of four fish but could only see each fish one at a time. In the other area was a group of three fish, again only visible to the female one at a time. After letting her explore, the researchers then determined where the female spent more time. The fish spent about twice as long swimming close to the larger group. In other words, the fish seems to have counted the number of individuals in each group and based on their counting, figured out which area of the aquarium had the larger group.

Pretend you’re a fish

To get in tune with how meaningful this ability is, visualize the experiment yourself as a human (you’re human, right?). Stand in front of two open doorways. In one doorway, four people appear, one at a time. In the other doorway, three people appear, one at a time. You can count them, distinguishing each different individual, and can tell which doorway leads to the larger group of people. That’s how smart the mosquitofish is.

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