Numerical Assessment in the Wild: Insights from Social Carnivores and Other Mammals

Benson-Amram S.
Gilfillan, G.
McComb, K.



Playback experiments have proven to be a useful tool to investigate the extent to which wild animals understand numerical concepts and the factors that play into their decisions to respond to different numbers of vocalizing conspecifics. In particular, playback experiments have broadened our understanding of the cognitive abilities of historically understudied species that are challenging to test in the traditional laboratory, such as members of the Order Carnivora. Additionally, playback experiments allow us to assess the importance of numerical information versus other ecologically important variables when animals are making adaptive decisions in their natural habitats. Here, we begin by reviewing what we know about quantity discrimination in carnivores from studies conducted in captivity. We then review a series of playback experiments conducted with wild social carnivores, including African lions, spotted hyenas, and wolves, which demonstrate that these animals can assess the number of conspecifics calling and respond based on numerical advantage. We discuss how the wild studies compliment those conducted in captivity and allow us to gain insights into why wild animals may not always respond based solely on differences in quantity. We then consider the key role that individual discrimination and cross-modal recognition play in the ability of animals to assess the number of conspecifics vocalizing nearby. Finally, we explore new directions for future research in this area, highlighting in particular the need for further work on the cognitive basis of numerical assessment skills and experimental paradigms that can be effective in both captive and wild settings.

Benson-Amram, Sarah, Gilfillan, Geoff and McComb, Karen (2017) Numerical assessment in the wild: insights from social carnivores. Philosophical Transactions B: Biological Sciences. ISSN 0962-8436