Elk NetworkStudy: Animals Do ‘Math’ for the Sake of Survival

General | April 3, 2020

A new study published by Trends in Ecology & Evolution indicates an animal’s ability to count helps it better understand specific circumstances including how to better understand how to reproduce and how to survive. As one example, researchers honed in on the behavior of elk.

Some prey animals adopt more sophisticated strategies: elk minimize predation risk by wolves by either living in small herds that are rarely encountered by wolves, or by gathering in large herds that reduces the chance that any particular individual will be the victim. 

Seeking shelter among social companions has at least three distinct advantages. First, an individual reduces the risk of being predated upon as the number of individuals in the group increases, a phenomenon termed the ‘dilution effect’, or simply ‘safety in numbers.’ Second, a predator has a harder time singling out an individual that lives in larger groups, the ‘confusion effect.’ And finally, many individuals together have a higher chance of detecting a predator, termed the ‘many eyes effect.’

Other than elk and wolves, scientists focused on bees and frogs, among other species.

“Interestingly, we know now that numerical competence is present on almost every branch on the animal tree of life,” Andreas Nieder, neurobiologist at the University of Tuebingen, told UPI. “Different groups of animals obviously developed this trait independently from other lineages and that strongly indicates that it has to be of adaptive value. So the capability to discriminate numbers has to have a strong survival benefit and reproduction benefit.”

(Photo source: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)