Washington DC [USA]: After learning that bees can understand zero and do basic math, researchers have now discovered that these tiny insects may be capable of connecting symbols to numbers as well.
Researchers have trained honeybees to match a character to a specific quantity, revealing they are able to learn that a symbol represents a numerical amount. It’s a finding that sheds new light on how numerical abilities may have evolved over millennia and even opens new possibilities for communication between humans and other species.
The discovery also points to new approaches for bio-inspired computing that can replicate the brain’s highly efficient approach to processing.
Associate Professor Adrian Dyer said that while humans were the only species to have developed systems to represent numbers, like the Arabic numerals we use each day, the research showed the concept can be grasped by brains far smaller than ours.
“We take it for granted once we’ve learned our numbers as children, but being able to recognise what ‘4’ represents actually requires a sophisticated level of cognitive ability,” Dyer said.
“Studies have shown primates and birds can also learn to link symbols with numbers, but this is the first time we’ve seen this in insects. Humans have over 86 billion neurons in our brains, bees have less than a million, and we’re separated by over 600 million years of evolution. But if bees have the capacity to learn something as complex as a human-made symbolic language, this opens up exciting new pathways for future communication across species,” he added.
According to the study published in the Journal of Biological Sciences, a number of non-human animals have been able to learn that symbols can represent numbers, including pigeons, parrots, chimpanzees and monkeys.
In a Y-shaped maze, individual bees were trained to correctly match a character with a number of elements.
They were then tested on whether they could apply their new knowledge to match the character to various elements of the same quantity.
A second group was trained in the opposite approach, matching a number of elements with a character.
While both could grasp their specific training, the different groups were unable to reverse the association and work out what to do when tested with the opposite (character-to-number or number-to-character).
“This suggests that number processing and understanding of symbols happens in different regions in bee brains, similar to the way separate processing happens in the human brain. Our results show honeybees are not at the same level as the animals that have been able to learn symbols like numbers and perform complex tasks. But the results have implications for what we know about learning, reversing tasks, and how the brain creates connections and associations between concepts. Discovering how such complex numerical skills can be grasped by miniature brains will help us understand how mathematical and cultural thinking evolved in humans, and possibly, other animals,” said lead researcher, Dr Scarlett Howard.
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