In terms of animal intellect, this study sets new standards.

Many examples of animals in the animal kingdom possess mathematical prowess, including some fish that can count, bees that can distinguish between odd and even numbers, and, more recently, giraffes that can make judgments based on statistical data.

A new study has just concluded examining the ability of four giraffes (Giraffa camelopardalis) in the Barcelona Zoo. It is thought that this skill, found in primates and parrots and a highly developed cognitive function, results from the animals’ huge brains in relation to their physical size. Smaller-brained species, like these giraffes, have not yet been subjected to testing.

Two pictures of giraffes next to each other showing them choose a carrot or zucchini piece as part of the experiment.

Just because they have smaller brains doesn’t mean they’re bad at stats. Image credit: Alvaro L Caicoya

The researchers gave the giraffe two treatment options, both held in a closed fist and concealed from the animal. The two snacks were taken out of transparent boxes that contained varying amounts of favored carrot sticks and less desired zucchini sticks. Despite being able to look inside the containers, neither of the four giraffes could determine what kind of food was in the researcher’s closed fist.



Under other circumstances, the containers contained treats in varying ratios, either 20 carrots and 100 zucchini or 100 carrots and 20 zucchinis. Next, 20 carrots and 100 zucchinis were combined in one container, and 20 carrots and 4 zucchinis were combined in the other. 57 carrots and 63 zucchinis were spotted in one container, and 3 carrots and 63 zucchinis were visible in the other container in the final form.

In the second stage of the experiment, a barrier was placed in the middle of the containers so that while the giraffes were selecting which closed hand to pick, they could only view the top portion of the container. The goal was to see if the giraffes could choose which treat to choose using statistical inference and their knowledge of physical obstacles.

The giraffes successfully selected the reward from the container with the largest percentage of their preferred snack. The scientists also discovered that the giraffes were fairly quick in their decision-making, choosing the right container in at least 17 out of the 20 trials in an average of just 1.2 sessions. The average number of sessions required by keas, a parrot species with a far higher brain-to-body ratio, was 3.9.

Overall, the results indicate that giraffes can display statistical reasoning abilities in a way similar to those of primates. The researchers believe that having large brains is unnecessary for this highly developed cognitive function and complicated statistical skills. In addition, they propose that, contrary to earlier hypotheses, the capacity for statistical inference may be more common in the animal kingdom.

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