10 thoughts on “NPR Science: Ants Can Count”

  1. I don’t get it. I didn’t read the paper, but the abstract says “surprisingly, distance estimation and homing performance remained virtually unaffected even by the most severe interferences with walking behaviour.” This indicates to me that the ants were not counting their steps, and that the behavior in the cartoon is not what the researchers actually found.

    1. Sorry- my post linked a follow-up study rather than the one covered by the animation.

      My reading of both studies is that ants are monitoring distance with some mechanism involving leg movement. Whether this constitutes “counting” is a debatable point.

      The second study clarifies that it isn’t simply movement per se, because injured but moving legs that don’t contact the ground don’t register. It’s as though legs have to be pushing back against the ground to register distance.

  2. I have followed these studies a bit and find them quite fascinating. While ants may not literally “count,” it seems they do something similar, as do many animals. Check out Keith Devlin’s The Math Instinct: Why You’re a Mathematical Genuis (Along with Lobsters, Birds, Cats, and Dogs) (ISBN: 1- 56025-672-9)

    Devlin is the executive director of Standford University’s Center for the Study of Language and Information and a consulting professor of mathematics. Cataglyphis is one of his examples (my only quibble with him here is that he keeps referring to Cataglyphis foragers as male and I believe, they must be female…)

    Otherwise, why should we not ascribe what appear to us to be only higher brain function to such organisms as ants? Is this a bit of primate prejuidice?

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