Journal of Ethology

, Volume 37, Issue 1, pp 111–115 | Cite as

Unique numerical competence of Asian elephants on the relative numerosity judgment task

  • Naoko IrieEmail author
  • Mariko Hiraiwa-Hasegawa
  • Nobuyuki Kutsukake
Short Communication


Many animals demonstrate numerical competence even without language. However, their representation is mainly based on inaccurate quantity instead of absolute numbers. Thus, their performance on numerical tasks is affected by the distance, magnitude, and the ratio of comparisons (i.e., as distance decreases, magnitudes increase, or as ratios increase the accuracy of discrimination decreases). We report that Asian elephants’ numerical representation is quite different from that of other animals. We trained three Asian elephants to use a touch-panel apparatus and one female successfully learned to use the apparatus. Next, a relative numerosity judgment task was presented on the screen and the elephant was asked to touch, with the tip of her trunk, the figures with the larger numbers of items. The numbers of items in each figure ranged from 0 to 10. 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. This study provides the first experimental evidence that nonhuman animals have cognitive characteristics partially identical to human counting.


Numerical competence Relative numerosity judgment Asian elephants 



We would like to thank the Director and the elephant keepers at Ueno Zoo for their cooperation in this study.


This study was supported by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science Grant-in-Aid for JSPS Fellows (22-6613) and ESB Cooperation Program in SOKENDAI (The Graduate University for Advanced Studies).

Compliance with ethical standards

Ethical approval

Our study was approved by the Director of Ueno Zoo, after it was evaluated by the research and education committee at the zoo. Ueno Zoo is a member of the Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums (, which also has an animal welfare committee to confirm that Ueno Zoo meets their animal welfare standards as well. Since it was approved by the zoo, the current study meets the animal welfare standards of Japan.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest.

Supplementary material

10164_2018_563_MOESM1_ESM.xlsx (10 kb)
Data of the overall proportion of correct responses (XLSX 9 kb)


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Copyright information

© Japan Ethological Society and Springer Japan KK, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Naoko Irie
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • Mariko Hiraiwa-Hasegawa
    • 1
  • Nobuyuki Kutsukake
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Evolutionary Studies of BiosystemsSokendai (The Graduate University for Advanced Studies)MiuraJapan
  2. 2.Japan Society for the Promotion of ScienceTokyoJapan

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