Counting Crows: Evidence for Hard-Wired, Inborn Ability to Detect Numerical Sets

“The Great Book of Nature is written in mathematical language” –Galileo Galilei (1)

carrion crow (corvus corone) headshot portrait against a blue background

Carrion Crow (Corvus corone)

If mathematics is the language of the universe, might we find the ability to do math hard-wired in species?

Research in primates has demonstrated that even without training, humans and monkeys possess numerosity, the ability to assess the number of items in a set (2,3).

A paper in Current Biology from Wagener and colleagues provides evidence that crows are born with a subset of neurons that are “hard wired” to perceive the number of items in a set (4). This work provides yet more evidence supporting a hypothesis of an innate “number sense” that is provided by a specific group of “preprogrammed” neurons.

In this study, Wagener’s group measured the responses of single neurons in two “numerically naïve” crows to color dot arrays. They measured neurons in the endbrain region known as the niopallium caudolaterale (NCL), which is thought to be the avian analog of the primate prefrontal cortex. They found that 12% of the neurons in NCL specifically responded to numbers and that specific neurons responded to specific numbers of items with greater or lesser activity.

This is the first such study to investigate the idea of an innate “sense of number” in untrained vertebrates that are not primates, and as such it suggests that a hard-wired, innate “sense of number” is not a special feature of the complex cerebral cortex of the primate brain but is an adaptive property that evolved independently in the differently structured and evolved end brains of birds.

Many questions remain. Are there similarities in the actual neurons involved? What does learning do on a physiological level to these neurons: Increase their number, increase connections to them?  What other vertebrates have similar innate mechanisms for assessing numbers of items? What about other members of the animal kingdom that need to have a sense of number for social or foraging behavior? How is it accomplished?

And finally, one last burning question, if birds are dinosaurs, does that mean that dinosaurs perished because they didn’t do their math homework? Asking for an eleven-year-old I know.

  1. Tyson, Peter. (2001) Describing Nature with math. NOVA  http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/physics/describing-nature-math.html 
  2. Izard, V. et al. (2009) Newborn infants perceive abstract numbers PNAS USA 106, 10382–85.
  3. Viswanahtan, P. and Neider, A. (2013) Neuronal correlates of a visual “sense of number” in primate parietal and prefrontal cortices. PNAS USA 110, 1118–95.
  4. Wagnener, L. et al. (2018) Neurons in the endbrain of numerically naïve crows spontaneously encode visual numerosity Cur. Biol. 28, 1–5.

Welcome to Your Biotechnology Field Trip at the BTC Institute!

Kaukauna High School students arrive at the BTC for a biotechnology fieldtrip.

Kaukauna High School students arrive at the BTC for a biotechnology fieldtrip.

BTCI provides our students an opportunity that they could never get in the classroom.
—Jim Geoffrey, Biology Teacher, Kaukauna High School

Your bus has arrived and parked in the circular driveway at the front of the BioPharmaceutical Technology Center on the Promega Corporation campus in Fitchburg, WI. Your BTC Institute hosts – and instructors – for your field trip are Barbara Bielec (K-12 Program Director) and Ryan Olson (Biotechnology Instructor). They’ll greet you in the Atrium and direct you to a conference room where you can leave coats and backpacks, and then to the lab you’ll be working in during your visit.

Here’s a taste of what happened next for students from Random Lake High School and Wonewoc High School on December 3rd, and from Kaukauna High School on December 4th. Continue reading

Finding the Teachable Moment: Science Literacy

Kindergarten teacher and children looking at bird's nest in librAs we head back into the school year, many of us are thinking about new teachers, new homework assignments, and the best way to motivate our children at home or our students in the classroom.

In a Science360 interview, Laurie Howell (NSF) and Dr. Moria Gunn (host of Tech Nation) talk about science literacy. Dr. Gunn states that she thinks people will learn what they need to know when they need to know it if they are given the tools for learning—that we need to catch a person when he or she is motivated and interested to learn something and make sure that the inquiry is supported.

Some of those tools that will support that inquiry?

  • The ability to recognize when they are not informed enough to make a decision or have an opinion.
  • The ability to think critically and evaluate sources and information.

What do you think? How do we find the teachable moment and reach someone in their moment of interest? And how do we make sure that they have the critical thinking skills to make best use of that motivation.

Here is the interview below.

Quizzing Technology in the Classroom

BTCI summer studentsThe most downloaded paper EVER in the history of the Association for Psychological Science journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest was published in 2013. Titled “Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology, ” it’s a free download and worth the read.

The authors, researchers in the field of psychology, review ten “top learning techniques” for better success in the classroom and the integration of new knowledge into working memory. They evaluated the effectiveness of a wide range of learning techniques that students typically use in the pursuit of better academic performance: Continue reading

How to Make Plastic Out of Milk

As the daughter of a (former) dairy farmer, I love milk and all its derived dairy products (e.g., cheese and butter). However, it wasn’t until my colleague Michele highlighted a kid science app that I realized milk is a great science medium as well. In fact, I recently discovered mixing vinegar with milk will create moldable plastic. Not only is this milk-derived product fun for kids and adults, but it also offers a history lesson: the resulting substance was used before petroleum-based plastic was available. Watch the video to learn about a fun kitchen experiment and potential handmade gift opportunity all in one package.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VFvik_THcNQ]

Sleep Well Today to Learn Well Tomorrow

World War II Poster

Sleep, defined as a state of reversible disconnect from the environment (1), is an integral part of life. In this fast-paced life, you might think of sleep as a waste of time and unnecessary, impinging on productivity. But, nothing can be farther than the truth. Sleep researchers around the world are trying to understand what is the most important physiological function of sleep. It is too simplistic to say that sleep rests the brain, and it is not entirely true since neuronal activity in many parts of the brain do not slow down appreciably during sleep. So, what does sleep do? Continue reading

Forgot Something? Maybe Your Diet, not Your Age, is to Blame

Ribbon tied around a finger as a reminderHave trouble finding your car keys this morning because you forgot where you left them? Or maybe you can’t remember the name of the new person who just joined the department down the hall? Before you blame age for your faulty memory, take a look at your diet. New research suggests that low levels of omega-3 fatty acids in your diet could be disrupting biochemical signaling in your brain and impairing your ability to learn and remember. And, consumption of high levels of fructose, often found in sugary beverages, could be making it worse. So, put down that soda and keep reading to learn how those empty calories might be sabotaging your memory and what you can do about it.

Continue reading

On being wrong…

I am wrong. A lot. I am ready to admit it.

Case in point, this past week, my husband and son decided to take some time and enjoy our summer.  On Tuesday, we decided to go to the Milwaukee Zoo. Because I am a bit of a crazy perfectionist (who may or may not be a tad obsessive), it’s possible that I may have slightly over prepared for this relaxing activity. I printed coupons, maps, and details instructions on how to get to the zoo. I had prepared an itinerary that included train rides, the antique carousel, seeing all the animals, attending the seal show, and of course an amazing picnic lunch. I packed water bottles, sun block, mosquito repellent, and extra socks.  We were going to have a fantastic day.

Forty-five minutes into the trip, I realized that I forgot the backpack containing all of those amenities, including directions on the kitchen table.  I was (extremely) mad at myself, but I knew that I remembered the directions exactly.  Being the somewhat controlling driver, I navigated the way I was SURE was the right way, even as my husband pointed to the sign that said “Milwaukee County Zoo” as it was flying by.   He may have politely suggested that I missed the exit. I may have ignored him. 

I knew I remembered the number of the exit and it was not that one. I was right. He was wrong. I was sure of it. (Insert exasperated sigh here.) Continue reading

A Periodic Table with Heart

It seems that there is no subject immune to organization into a periodic table. A brief Google search reveals periodic tables for everything from beer to typefaces and from art to visualization methods. If a subject can be organized into groups with common properties, or even if it cannot, it appears that it can be made to fit the format.

In amongst all the geeky, funny and just plain weird periodic tables, the old familiar one is undergoing something of resurgence as well. For example, there are several interactive periodic tables for the iPad where you can view any number of characteristics of each element with a tap of the finger, it is now easier than ever to find out everything you will ever need to know about Barium, Potassium, or Neon, to name but a few.

But for me (and a few million other YouTube visitors) one periodic table stands head and shoulders above them all—The Periodic Table of Videos, produced by journalist Brady Haran, Prof. Martyn Poliakoff and others at the University of Nottingham. As the name suggests, this periodic table contains videos introducing each element, demonstrating the properties of each and including interesting anecdotes about their discovery or use. In a recent Science article, Haran and Poliakoff state that all 118 videos were shot over a 5-week period. There were no storyboards or scripts, they simply filmed the scientists talking about each element and demonstrating the important characteristics. The result of this approach is astonishingly engaging. And the informal style is highly successful in communicating the passion and enthusiasm of Dr. Poliakoff and his colleagues for their subject. Try to watch this Sodium video to the end without smiling—-I don’t think it can be done. Continue reading

An Interactive Wonderland: The British Library Web Site

Finding new topics that take you into deep discussions with strangers is always an interesting endeavor. I find that such conversations always include some mention of what people found helpful, entertaining or amazing on the internet. Recent conversations at an off-site training course I attended were no exception when the instructor shared one of her favorite web sites, the British Library. I am accustomed to having our local library web site offer helpful search functions to locate books, audio or video media on a topic that I am researching. However, I didn’t expect the amazing array of online capabilities that the British Library offered. This site went beyond my expectation of what a modern-day library experience could be.

Continue reading