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Scientists Studying Crows Get Another Surprise –They’re So Smart They Understand the Concept of Zero


Chuck Homler, DBA Focus on Wildlife /CC 4.0 license

Based on substantial evidence of raven awareness, a German university has shown that some ravens can learn to recognize “zero” as a unit of counting.

While that sounds ridiculous, zero is nothing, rather it is one of the most complex mathematical concepts ever devised: that something can and should not represent anything, not just as a base value, but as a placeholder.

The work comes from the University of Tübingen in Germany, where Professor Andreas Nieder works with scavenger crows to perform intelligence tests.

“The conception of” nothing “as the number” zero “is celebrated as one of the greatest achievements in mathematics”, wrote Nieder in his article. “We show that crows can grasp the empty set as a null numerical quantity that is mentally represented next to the number one.”

Exactly how this breakthrough was achieved is straightforward and did not involve bird watching. Sesame Street.

The crows were shown two sets of dots on one screen and taught to indicate whether the two screens had the same values. There can be between zero and four points. Exactly as with 1, 2, 3 and 4: when the screens showed no dots, the neurons in the raven brain showed that it understood that it was a numerical value, but that it was a numerical value that contained nothing.

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Sometimes crows made mistakes, often thinking that zero was actually one, but it was rare for them to think that zero represented more than two.

Counting crows

It took human civilization at least until the XX century a. C. to firmly set the base or empty value. Sometime between the Akkadians and ancient Babylonians, there was a symbol to represent that a number was missing in a column, for example 0 in 1,025 does not mean that the number is 26, it just means that there are no hundreds in this number.

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As early as 1770 the Egyptians were making hieroglyphs with the base value “nfr” from which they began to count and distances. The heavy Greeks never managed to capture the concept in their counting, language or philosophy, which means that, in addition to being occasionally smarter than a first grader, these “Counting Ravens” were smarter in some ways than the Greeks. classics.

Nieder contributed greatly to the current theory of animal consciousness, which is that this higher level of thinking may not necessarily be tied to the presence of the cerebral cortex, a cranial region only found in primates, apes, and hominids.

In an earlier experiment, he trained two crows to peck through panels following a flash of blue light or red light, but Nieder made the task more difficult by constantly changing the rules, requiring the crows to move away and look at the task as a whole. . , rather than simply assigning physical movements to a reward.

He changed which light was assigned to which panel, and sometimes changed the rules before the flash, and sometimes after the flash, constantly interrupting the birds’ basic instructions.

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“These results suggest that the neural bases that enable sensory awareness arose before the appearance of mammals or independently in at least the avian lineage and do not necessarily require a cerebral cortex,” wrote Nieder and the other authors in their corresponding paper. published in Science.

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