Monkey Math

I think it’s important to try to understand
more about where we come from; what makes us human, what makes us animal, what makes
us more similar to non-human primates than not. We started working with this troop of
baboons here at the Seneca Park Zoo. These baboons had never participated in experimental
tasks before and so that presented a great opportunity for us to test them for the first
time on quantitative tasks to try to get a sense of what their spontaneous wild numerical
cognition might be like. I’m the primary keeper for these baboons, so I work with these guys
five days a week. Baboons are very vocal; that’s probably one of the things that they’re
known for. Their social structure is very unique. Their hierarchy is based on the adult
male, Mancino. This is kind of his troop so there’s a pecking order and so if you don’t
follow direction and wait your turn, you’re basically going to have to pay for it. So
there’s a lot of screaming and fighting going on. The monkeys are very fond of Cheerios,
so we like to use those in the experiment. We presented them with a food quantity choice
between two sets of objects that differed in their numerical value and tested whether
or not they were able to choose the larger quantity from those choices. Basically what
we do is we show a monkey two different quantities in the palms of our hands. Then we place those
in opaque cups and once the treat is in the opaque cup, the monkey can no longer see it.
So we then push it forward and wait for the monkey to make a choice of what they want.
We gave them one exposure to 27 different numerical pairs and we found that by and large,
they were able to select the larger quantity. What this tells us is that, without any prior
training, without any exposure or experimental manipulation, that these animals have a spontaneous
sense of quantity. We have two individuals that have been particularly good at the study;
Pearl and Ursula. The great thing about them that I found the most interesting through
this whole process is that they’re at the bottom of the hierarchy. So they have to spend
the extra time foraging and finding ways to get their food without anybody noticing. So
I think they’ve kind of developed a way to get as much as possible in a short amount
of time. One goal for the field is to sort of fill in the evolutionary tree of cognition.
So if we can test many different species, some of which are closely related to humans,
some of which are more distantly related to humans, we can start to kind of trace a path
of the history of our cognitive abilities and where they come from over evolutionary
time. It’s been a great learning experience for everybody. It’s given us a brand new way
to enrich them. We’ve actually found that giving them foraging opportunities and thinking
opportunities like the research study and all that, decreases the amount of fighting
that we actually have in here. The more enriched you can make their lives, the better off they
are as a troop and functioning and socializing with everybody. A production of the University
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  1. That shows us, that they know about quantity. This isnt always given, as you might think. Btw the woman reminds me of Amy Farrah Fowler from "Big Bang Theory" 😀

  2. No, it does not necessarily show that they know about quantitiy. All it definitely shows is that they were able to differentiate a larger heap of Cheetos from a smaller one. If this video represents the way the study was conducted, it does seem like a kind of shit study. Maybe by having the animal getting a reward for picking a larger quantity of something non-edible, they could eliminate some errors.

  3. Yeah sure you're right. With larger amount of small objects (i.e. corn) that is smaller than the other heap what would they choose? Never thought it that way.

  4. That is a very good suggestion. The monkey might have a preference for one of the objects though, choosing the preferred snack regardless of the amount of the other. I think you could control for preference by first having the monkey choose between a pictogram with bigger, but fewer objects, and another with smaller, but more objects, and then rewarding the choice of more objects with a snack. Of course, teaching the monkey this is a different matter.

  5. I think they need to make a series of test with the same quantity but diffrent size of food to counter-check if there is a correlation between quantity and size. I hope they respond to this discussion.

  6. This study is one of several that are being done, and future research may address those issues. For this study, researchers used peanuts and distributed them into the opaque cups in two ways: sequentially and simultaneously. For simultaneous trials, they showed both quantities and then placed them in the cups at the same time. For sequential, they first did one cup, then the other. They used 27 different numerical pairs from 1 to 8. Hope that clarifies. Thanks for adding to the discussion.

  7. A link to the study is now in the description for those who would like to read more about it.

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