14 Jun '18
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Evolutionary cognition – bees demonstrate an understanding of zero

Howard et al. demonstrate an astounding evolutionary convergence by showing that insects have developed the concept of zero, a capability once thought to be a unique major intellectual advance in humans. The last common ancestor of humans and the honeybees used in the experiments lived more than 600 million years ago. Their abstract:

Some vertebrates demonstrate complex numerosity concepts—including addition, sequential ordering of numbers, or even the concept of zero—but whether an insect can develop an understanding for such concepts remains unknown. We trained individual honey bees to the numerical concepts of “greater than” or “less than” using stimuli containing one to six elemental features. Bees could subsequently extrapolate the concept of less than to order zero numerosity at the lower end of the numerical continuum. Bees demonstrated an understanding that parallels animals such as the African grey parrot, nonhuman primates, and even preschool children.

…and a description of their experiment from a review by Nieder:

…the authors lured free-flying honey bees from maintained hives to their testing apparatus (see the figure) and marked the insects with color for identification. They rewarded the bees for discriminating displays on a screen that showed different numbers (numerosities) of items. The researchers controlled for systematic changes in the appearance of the numerosity displays that occur when the number of items is changed. They thus ensured that the bees were discriminating between different numbers, rather than responding to low-level visual cues.

First, the researchers trained the bees to rank two numerosity displays at a time. Over the course of training, they changed the numbers presented to encourage rule learning. Bees from one group were rewarded with a sugar solution whenever they flew to the display showing more items, thereby following a greater-than rule. The other group of bees was trained on the less-than rule and rewarded for landing at the display that presented fewer items. The bees learned to master this task with displays consisting of one to four items; they were able to do so not only for familiar numerosity displays but also for new displays.

Next, the researchers occasionally inserted displays containing no item. Would the bees understand that empty displays could be ranked with countable numerosities? Indeed, the bees obeying the less-than rule spontaneously landed on displays showing no item, that is, an empty set (see the figure). In doing so, bees understood that the empty set was numerically smaller than sets of one, two, or more items. Further experiments confirmed that this behavior was related to quantity estimation and not a product of the learning history.

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