Researchers Teach Elephant to Use Computer, Then Prove She Can Count

©. Ethological Society/Springer

The new study shows that Asian elephants have numerical skills similar to those in humans.

We all know that elephants never forget – now they have another skill set to impress us with. They can count! Oh, and use a computer.

OK, so maybe the computer was just a touch screen attached to a computer, it's not like the elephant was going on Twitter, but still it's pretty amazing. Elephants are supposed to be using their trunks for (checks notes, oh look, a whole article on the topic written be me: 10 extraordinary facts about elephant trunks) elephant things. But this grande dame, the 14-year old Authai, learned how to use her trunk to play math games with scientist Naoko Irie of Japan's Graduate University for Advanced Studies and her colleagues. And then she proved to the researchers that she can count.

Authai is not the first non-human animal to show math skills. Previous research has shown that a number of animals have some degree of "numerical competence" – orangutans, chimpanzees, gorillas, rhesus monkeys, bears, and even fish. But those math skills were based on inaccurate quantity rather than absolute numbers.

After being taught how to use the touch screen, Authai was presented with images of two sets of objects, of which she would then select the set with more items. These groups had from 0 to 10 items, and contained pictures of bananas, watermelons and apples. The fruits were shown in various sizes to ensure that she wasn't making her choice based on how much of the surface was covered.

Out of 271 times, she chose correctly 181 times – a success rate of 66.8 per cent.

“We found that her performance was unaffected by distance, magnitude, or the ratios of the presented numerosities, but consistent with observations of human counting, she required a longer time to respond to comparisons with smaller distances,” explains Irie. “This study provides the first experimental evidence that nonhuman animals have cognitive characteristics partially identical to human counting.”

While it would be nice if Authai were counting real pieces of fruit in her natural habitat rather than using a computer in an enclosed elephant playground, it may just be that studies like this – ones that show how smart these social animals are – could lead the way to more freedom and respect for the majestic creatures in general – they could really use it right about now. The more we learn about how intelligent they are, the harder it becomes to keep them in captivity and hopefully the harder it becomes to slaughter them. Who knows, maybe someday the elephants will be testing us on our pachyderm skills.