Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Who is better with numbers, college students or guppies?

By Philip Copitch, Ph.D.

He we have an adorable Blue Grass Guppy. Atractive and not lacking is some math skills.

Many animals seem to understand small and large numbers. Dogs and chimps seem to understand what is 1, 2 or 3. Many animals seem to understand the concept of many: 1 versus 50. So scientists wanted to know how far back in the evolution of vertebrates (animals with a back bone) did this number ability start. Is estimating large numbers new, and therefore required a big brain? Or older, needing only a smaller brain.

Researchers from the University of Padova, Italy and the University College of London, United Kingdom devised an ingenious way to find out. As it turns out, guppies seem to like being in larger groups with others of their own type. So when a single guppy is put in the middle between two groups of guppies, say 3 guppies and 30 guppies,  the single guppy quickly swims and joins the larger group. To test their estimating skills the scientists had multiple trials with different ratios of group sizes. Did the guppies count? In other words, could they tell the difference between 20 or 23 in a group? Or did they estimate small group verses bigger group. "That group is way larger than the other group so I'm joining the larger group... you know it is safer in numbers."

The researches also tested college students.  How do big brained college students do compared to little brained guppies?

Both guppies and students counted when the group was under 4 and estimated when the groups were larger.

Researchers came to the following conclusions concerning when math skills first developed:

...the building blocks of uniquely human mathematical abilities may be evolutionarily ancient, dating back to before the divergence of bony fish and tetrapod lineages.

The question posed on the TV program was "Are you smarter that a 5th grader?" But maybe it should be "are you smarter than a guppy?"

Read this study: http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0031923

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