Skip to main content

Quantity discrimination in a spontaneous task in a poison frog


The use of quantitative information underlies a range of animal behaviors. There are thought to be two parallel systems for judging quantity: a precise representation of small numbers of objects, typically less than 4, that can be tracked visually (object tracking system) and an imprecise system for larger quantities (approximate number system) governed by Weber's law. Using a spontaneous discrimination task with live prey, we examined the ability of the poison frog Dendrobates auratus to discriminate quantities of low (1–4) or high (4–16) numerosity over a range of ratio contrasts (0.33, 0.5, 0.67, 0.75). Similar to a previous study in treefrogs, we found that the poison frogs chose the larger quantity of flies when choosing between 1 and 3 and between 1 and 2. However, their performance was near chance when choosing between 2 and 3 and below chance when choosing between 3 and 4. When the numerosity of flies was higher, they did not discriminate between the larger and smaller quantity. Our findings are consistent with the ability of poison frogs to discriminate small quantities of objects using an object tracking system, but could also reflect a singular vs. plural discrimination. We did not find evidence of an approximate number system governed by Weber’s law, nor evidence of a speed–accuracy tradeoff. However, total set size was associated with lower accuracy and longer latencies to choose. Future studies should explore quantity discrimination in additional contexts to better understand the limits of these abilities in poison frogs.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4

Data availability

Data are available as electronic supplementary material.


  1. Agrillo C, Bisazza A (2017) Understanding the origin of number sense: a review of fish studies. Philos T R Soc B 373:20160511

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Al Aïn S, Giret N, Grand M, Kreutzer M, Bovet D (2009) The discrimination of discrete and continuous amounts in African grey parrots (Psittacus erithacus). Anim Cogn 12:145–154

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Anderson US, Stoinski TS, Bloomsmith MA, Marr MJ, Smith AD, Maple TL (2005) Relative numerousness judgment and summation in young and old Western lowland gorillas. J Comp Psychol 119:285–295

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Balestrieri A, Gazzola A, Pellitteri-Rosa D, Vallortigara G (2019) Discrimination of group numerousness under predation risk in anuran tadpoles. Anim Cogn 22:223–230

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Barnard AM, Hughes KD, Gerhardt RR, Divincenti Jr L, Bovee JM, Cantlon JF (2013) Inherently analog  quantity representations in olive baboons (Papio anubis). Front Psychol 4:253

  6. Barner D, Wood J, Hauser M, Carey S (2008) Evidence for a non-linguistic distinction between singular and plural sets in rhesus monkeys. Cognition 107:603–622

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Bisazza A, Piffer L, Serena G, Agrillo C (2010) Ontogeny of numerical abilities in fish. PLoS ONE 5:e15516

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Bogale BA, Kamata N, Mioko K, Sugita S (2011) Quantity discrimination in jungle crows, Corvus macrorhynchos. Anim Behav 82:635–641

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Brown JL (2013) The evolution of parental care, aposematism and color diversity in Neotropical poison frogs. Evol Ecol.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Butterworth B, Gallistel CR, Vallortigara G (2017) Introduction: the origins of numerical abilities. Philos T R Soc B 373:20160507

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Chittka L, Skorupski P, Raine NE (2009) Speed-accuracy tradeoffs in animal decision making. Trends Ecol Evol 24:400–407

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Dyer AG, Chittka L (2004) Bumblebees (Bombus terrestris) sacrifice foraging speed to solve difficult colour discrimination tasks. J Comp Physiol A Neuroethol Sens Neural Behav Physiol 190:759–763

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  13. Fechner GT, Howes DH, Boring EG (1966) Elements of psychophysics. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York

    Google Scholar 

  14. Feigenson L, Carey S (2005) On the limits of infants’ quantification of small object arrays. Cognition 97:295–313

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Gallistel CR, Gelman R (2000) Non-verbal numerical cognition: from reals to integers. Trends Cogn Sci 4:59–65

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Garland A, Low J, Burns KC (2012) Large quantity discrimination by North Island robins (Petroica longipes). Anim Cogn 15:1129–1140

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Griggio M, Valera F, Casas-Crivillé A, Hoi H, Barbosa A (2011) White tail markings are an indicator of quality and affect mate preference in rock sparrows. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 65:655–664

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Hunt S, Low J, Burns KC (2008) Adaptive numerical competency in a food-hoarding songbird. P Roy Soc B Biol Sci 275:2373–2379

    Google Scholar 

  19. Hyde DC (2011) Two systems of non-symbolic numerical cognition. Front Hum Neurosci 5:150

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Hyde DC, Wood JN (2011) Spatial attention determines the nature of nonverbal number representation. J Cogn Neurosci 23:2336–2351

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Jones SM, Brannon EM (2012) Prosimian primates show ratio dependence in spontaneous quantity discriminations. Front Psychol 3:550

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  22. Krusche P, Uller C, Dicke U (2010) Quantity discrimination in salamanders. J Exp Biol 213:1822–1828

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Lucon-Xiccato T, Petrazzini MEM, Agrillo C, Bisazza A (2015) Guppies discriminate between two quantities of food items but prioritize item size over total amount. Anim Behav 107:183–191

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Lucon-Xiccato T, Dadda M, Gatto E, Bisazza A (2017) Development and testing of a rapid method for measuring shoal size discrimination. Anim Cogn 20:149–157

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Lucon-Xiccato T, Gatto E, Bisazza A (2018) Quantity discrimination by treefrogs. Anim Behav 139:61–69

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Pašukonis A, Trenkwalder K, Ringler M, Ringler E, Mangione R, Steininger J, Warrington I, Hödl W (2016) The significance of spatial memory for water finding in a tadpole-transporting frog. Anim Behav 116:89–98

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Ringler E, Pašukonis A, Hödl W, Ringler M (2013) Tadpole transport logistics in a Neotropical poison frog: indications for strategic planning and adaptive plasticity in anuran parental care. Front Zool 10:67

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Rugani R, Cavazzana A, Vallortigara G, Regolin L (2013) One, two, three, four, or is there something more? Numerical discrimination in day-old domestic chicks. Anim Cogn 16(4):557–564

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Shettleworth SJ (2009) Cognition, evolution, and behavior. Oxford University Press, Oxford

    Google Scholar 

  30. Stancher G, Sovrano VA, Potrich D, Vallortigara G (2013) Discrimination of small quantities by fish (redtail splitfin, Xenotoca eiseni). Anim Cogn 16:307–312

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Stancher G, Rugani R, Regolin L, Vallortigara G (2015) Numerical discrimination by frogs (Bombina orientalis). Anim Cogn 18:219–229

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Stebbins RC, Cohen NW (1997) A natural history of amphibians. Princeton University Press, Princeton

  33. Summers K (1990) Paternal care and the cost of polygyny in the green dart-poison frog, Dendrobates auratus. Behav Ecol Sociobiol 27:307–313

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Trick LM, Pylyshyn ZW (1994) Why are small and large numbers enumerated differently? A limited-capacity preattentive stage in vision. Psychol Rev 101:80

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Trimmer PC, Houston AI, Marshall JAR, Bogacz R, Paul ES, Mendl MT, McNamara JM (2008) Mammalian choices: combining fast-but- inaccurate and slow-but-accurate decision-making systems. Proc R Soc Lond B Biol Sci 275:2353–2361

    Google Scholar 

  36. Uller C, Jaeger R, Guidry G, Martin C (2003) Salamanders (Plethodon cinereus) go for more: rudiments of number in an amphibian. Anim Cogn 6:105–112

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Wright GA, Carlton M, Smith BH (2009) A honeybee’s ability to learn, recognize, and discriminate odors depends upon odor sampling time and concentration. Behav Neurosci 123:36–43

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


We thank Keith W. Sockman and James Umbanhowar for assistance with statistical analyses.


Not applicable.

Author information




Conceptualization SK; methodology SK and SSB; formal analysis and investigation SK; writing—original draft preparation SK; writing—review and editing SSB; funding acquisition SSB; resources SSB; supervision SSB.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Sabrina S. Burmeister.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of interest

S. Khatiwada and S. S. Burmeister declare no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

All applicable international, national, and/or institutional guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed.

Consent for publication

All authors consent to publication.

Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary Information

Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.

Supplementary file1 (CSV 1 KB)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Khatiwada, S., Burmeister, S.S. Quantity discrimination in a spontaneous task in a poison frog. Anim Cogn (2021).

Download citation


  • Numerical cognition
  • Quantity discrimination
  • Amphibian
  • Anuran