Monkeys Know a Thing or Two about Math

First Posted: Apr 22, 2014 10:38 PM EDT

A recent study shows that there's more to "monkey business" than previously thought. As prior studies have shown how these animals carry the capability to do basic arithmetic, new research delves into the roots of mathematical evolution through our primate cousins. 

For this study, researchers from Harvard University Medical School worked to teach rhesus macaques how to identify 10 Arabic numerals and 16 letters, representing the numbers zero to 25.

The larger the symbol or number, the better the reward. For instance, a small number might earn one of the macaques a drop of water, while a larger symbol could earn them an orange soda. However, using their new math skill sets, the macaques were able to determine which of the two symbols represented a larger quantity and could earn them the best reward. Findings showed that 90 percent of the macaques accurately chose the larger symbol.

"The monkeys want the most of whatever is out there, and this is just one of many ways to figure out the best way to get the most," said lead researchers and neurobiologist Margaret Livingstone of the university, via Live Science.

This Is not the first time that monkeys and math have been studied. In 2007, researchers from Duke University had rhesus monkeys sit in front of a computer screen and study several images of flashing dots: The first, an image of several dots, and the second of a different number of dots. Next, each monkey was shown the two images of cluster dots. However, only one image displayed the correct number of dots.

Those who consistently chose the correct answers were rewarded with Kool-Aid. Researchers found that within just a few weeks, most of the monkeys were choosing the correct number of dots for even more complex problems, according to Science Recorder

This and other studies examine the mathematical complexity of these and other creatures. They also suggest that the first signs of mathematical thinking date back much farther than originally thought.

More information regarding the findings can be seen via the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

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