Cuttlefish can count to five

Cuttlefish have an intuitive understanding of quantity are able to discern between close numbers like four and five. Here's how scientists made the finding:

From an article on the finding at Discover:

The researchers hatched cuttlefish eggs and waited until the animals were a month old. Then they started testing the young cephalopods. In each test, a cuttlefish waited on one end of a tank, and researchers lowered a two-chambered box with clear walls into the other end. A partition jutted out from the center of the box toward the cuttlefish. As it swam toward the apparatus, the cuttlefish would have to make a choice between one chamber and the other.

Cuttlefish Can Count to Five (YouTube HowStuffWorks)

Image: Neil Liddle

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  1. futnuh says:

    Obligatory cuttlefish story (because everyone has one, right?) ...

    I used to do a lot of scuba diving with the Australian National University dive club. We had our own boat and would be found most weekends diving the rocky reefs south of Sydney. On one weekend trip down to Jervis Bay, my good friend Ole lead a dive in the deep water outside of the bay's entrance. They tossed the anchor into the 50 meter depths, geared up, and descended. Ole, being first down the line, had the responsibility of "setting" the anchor to make sure the boat wouldn't be carried off by the strong current. Focused on this task he failed to see the giant cuttlefish approaching from behind. Ole looked up and the first (and last) thing he saw were large tentacles grabbing his mask and wrenching it away from his face. Water flooded into his vision and the next 20 seconds were spent blindly vying for ownership. He claims the cuttlefish had a body a meter long and, while probably a slight exaggeration, I don't doubt the creature was a damn sight bigger than the 40-50cm ones we frequently saw in shallower water. Couple the larger size with the nitrogen narcosis and the sudden surprise and it was probably very much like a scene from Alien.

  2. Hopefully it's just laziness. If it turns out that they get distracted by ruminating on primitive recursive functions and formalizing an axiomatic construction of the natural numbers; then we are going to have to feel really, really, bad about eating them.

  3. You broke quarantine and let him back on the boat?

    Next outbreak of Deep Ones is your fault.

  4. Maybe, but what is counting, really, other than being able to distinguish more from less. Humans have the ability to do this to an extremely precise degree. Cuttlefish can distinguish between 5 items and 4 items, something the vast majority of the animal kingdom is apparently unable to do. How high can humans count? If we're allowed to write numbers down and manipulate the objects we're counting, I suppose we're able to count to as large as we have the vocabulary. But without those tools, how large? I don't think I could count 100 objects without error if I weren't allowed to move the ones I'd already counted. So just looking at them, I could probably count somewhere between 50 and 100, depending on the size and variability in the objects being counted. And my error rate would go up as the number of items went up. Anyway, my point is, arguing whether or not this qualifies as counting is probably semantics. The point is that cuttlefish can do something we previously only thought primates and a few other animals could do.

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