Bees Understand Zero, Zip, Nada

By Bill Andrews | June 7, 2018 4:14 pm
(Credit: Viesturs Ozolins/Shutterstock)

(Credit: Viesturs Ozolins/Shutterstock)

We like to think, as humans, that our big brains separate us from the animals. Sure, we’re basically mobile meat just like them, but we can think. But the more we’ve learned about the other species out there, the more brainpower we’ve detected too.

Not only can some animals be trained and do tricks, but a few can communicate and even do simple math. An elite club can even understand the concept of zero, embodied nothingness: various primates, the African grey parrot, and even preschool kids.

Now, according to a Science paper out today, honey bees have joined the club. (Contain your shock, Nic Cage!)

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We already knew the apian insects were smart, as Andreas Nieder points out in a related Science Perspective: “They possess elaborate short-term memory to consider upcoming decisions, understand abstract concepts such as same-ness and difference, and learn intricate skills from other bees. Bees can also estimate the number of up to four objects.”

But zero is particularly tricky. It took our own species centuries to fully grapple with the concept of nothingness and how to represent it. Understanding that an empty basket contains zero apples, and that it’s a comparable concept to 3 apples, requires some serious mathematical competence

But honey bees get it! In their experiments, the paper’s authors first taught bees the concept of greater than/less than — already pretty impressive. They set up two white squares with black “elements” (squares, dots, etc) and gave bees sugary rewards for choosing the correct ones to land on: “greater than”-trained bees on the square with more elements, “less than”-trained bees on the square with fewer. Makes sense, right?

Once the bees got good at that, though, the real magic happened. The scientists put up two boards as usual, but one of them was blank, symbolizing zero elements. Would the bees understand this as another number, and see it as less than the other numbers? It turns out, they did!

Bee Brained

One last neat detail: As the bees’ numerical options became more stark — choosing between 0 and 5, say, instead of 0 and 1 — the bees became more accurate. That’s also true for humans! Something about the bees’ brains, with under a million neurons each, must interpret numbers the same way as our human brains, with their 86,000 million neurons.

“It constitutes a fascinating case of convergent evolution of numerical competence,” writes Nieder, who suggests studying the underlying evolution making it possible. “We have only just begun to zoom in on ‘nothing’ as a relevant quantitative concept for the brain.”

It’s just one more way our powerful human intellect turns out not to be unique among the animal kingdom after all. Which, in a way, is the more exciting alternative.


MORE ABOUT: animals

‘Psychopath AI’ Offers A Cautionary Tale for Technologists

By Nathaniel Scharping | June 7, 2018 3:32 pm
(Credit: thunderbrush)

(Credit: thunderbrush)

Researchers at MIT have created a psychopath. They call him Norman. He’s a computer.

Actually, that’s not really right. Though the team calls Norman a psychopath (and the chilling lead graphic on their homepage certainly backs that up), what they’ve really created is a monster. Read More


Human Cancer Treatment Helps Sea Turtles

By Lauren Sigfusson | June 7, 2018 2:07 pm

Tumors, called fibropapillomatosis, on sea turtles are similar to human cancers. (Credit: Jen Zuber)

Hard shells. Tails. Flippers. Sea turtles differ from humans in many ways, but scientists recently discovered a genetic vulnerability shared by humans and these marine dwelling animals.

Wild animals are increasingly seeing new forms of disease emerge, further threatening vulnerable species like the sea turtle. And now it’s hit our flippered, shelly friends. First documented in Florida, potentially fatal tumors called fibropapillomatosis are threatening sea turtles worldwide. But a recent study published in Communications Biology found that these tumors, which often appear in the eye region, are similar to human cancers. This could help researchers address the tumors with treatments already developed for humans. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts
MORE ABOUT: animals, cancer

Curiosity Rover Finds Organics Hidden In Mars’ Mudstones And Methane In Its Atmosphere

By Eric Betz | June 7, 2018 1:00 pm
A selfie of the Curiosity Rover taken on Vera Rubin Ridge. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

A selfie of the Curiosity Rover taken on Vera Rubin Ridge. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

In a much-hyped press conference held on Thursday, NASA announced its Curiosity rover had uncovered new evidence of methane — a potential sign of life — as well as signs of organic compounds buried in ancient mudstone.

The space agency did not say it had found evidence of alien life. However, these new results are still tantalizing. Read More


A Sour Taste in Your Mouth Means You’re More Likely to Take Risks

By Lacy Schley | June 7, 2018 9:43 am
(Credit: In The Light Photography/Shutterstock)

(Credit: In The Light Photography/Shutterstock)

Tired of playing it safe? Go suck a lemon! No, really. A new paper published in Scientific Reports says tasting something sour is linked to more risk-taking behavior in people.

Read More

MORE ABOUT: psychology

The Moon’s Gradual Retreat is Lengthening Earth Days

By Amber Jorgenson | June 6, 2018 4:53 pm
(Credit: NASA)

(Credit: NASA)

Do you ever feel like there just isn’t enough time in the day? Well, the moon agrees with you — it’s actively slowing the Earth’s rotation, stretching out the length of our days little by little.

A study published on June 4 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences says that days on Earth lasted just 18 hours some 1.4 billion years ago, and that we can thank the moon’s gradual retreat for our ever-lengthening day.

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Science Explains Why East Coast NFL Teams Often Get Crushed In Night Games

By Eric Betz | June 6, 2018 3:56 pm

(Credit: flickr/Ed Yourdon)

The first ever Monday Night Football game kicked off in September 21, 1970, launching the NFL into prime time American TV. But it’s also a night that Hall of Fame New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath would probably rather forget. The legendary passer threw three interceptions that night in Cleveland against the Browns in a game that was plagued by “blunders, a record number of penalties, (and) shocking lapses” from the defense.

Namath can now take solace knowing that science has now shown biology was working against him through disruptions to his circadian rhythm. Every living thing on Earth evolved with a 24-hour day-night cycle, and it governs mental, physical and behavioral changes throughout the day. When that cycle gets disrupted, our body struggles to cope. That’s why the American Medical Association has warned about things like working the night shift, or exposure to too much light at night.
Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Mind & Brain

You’re Drawing Lightning Wrong

By Lauren Sigfusson | June 6, 2018 3:55 pm
If you draw lightning bolts like this, you’re doing it all wrong. (Credit: Shutterstock)

If you draw lightning bolts like this, you’re doing it all wrong. (Credit: Shutterstock)

How do you draw lightning bolts? If you draw them as zigzags, similar to the image above, and Harry Potter’s famous scar, then you’re wrong.

A 19th century photographer named William Nicholson Jennings had this wild theory that lightning isn’t depicted accurately in paintings. But how to prove it? Technology, of course! Jennings looked to photography to prove his theory correct, taking the first-ever photo of lightning on September 2, 1882. Read More

MORE ABOUT: lightning

Researchers Get a Peek at How Other Animals See the World

By Cody Cottier | June 6, 2018 3:34 pm

A household scene as viewed by various pets and pests. Human eyesight is roughly seven times sharper than a cat, 40 to 60 times sharper than a rat or a goldfish, and hundreds of times sharper than a fly or a mosquito. (Image courtesy of Eleanor Caves)

Animals have us beat in basically every test of sensory perception. Bats bounce ultrasonic waves to locate prey, and bears can smell a carcass from miles away.

But our abilities are respectable in one category: visual acuity. A study published recently in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution shows that humans see the world in finer detail than almost any other living creature. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Mind & Brain

Einstein’s ‘Imaginary Elevator’ Thought Experiment Proven Right Again

By Bill Andrews | June 4, 2018 4:26 pm

Well, Einstein’s done it again!

That is to say, the gravitational theories of Albert Einstein have once again been confirmed, and to a new degree of precision. The equations of general relativity predicted a certain quantity would be zero, and physicists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) have calculated a record-low, unbelievably tiny result — basically, as good to zero as we can get. Read More

MORE ABOUT: Einstein, physics

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