The Italian Almanac

smart chick

Smart Chicks

Chicks know how to count and prefer to do so from left to right, just like humans, Italian scientists leading an international team of researchers announced. The team's study, a group effort by psychology departments at the Universities of Padua, Trento and Saskatchewan in Canada, looked at two different kinds of birds, the domestic chicken and North American nutcracker.

''We were able to train chicks to peck at either the forth or sixth hole in a series of 16,'' said Padua psychologist Lucia Regolin, who led the joint study. In order to do that, the chicks had to learn how to count their way to the right hole, Regolin said. More interesting still, she said that they almost always started counting from left to right, just like most people. In a separate trial, the birds took the same left-to-right approach to singling out a black container among white ones.

''Our results indicate for the first time that a disposition to count from left to right exists in non-human, non-linguistic species,'' she said. ''The fact that they were chicks supports the theory that such a disposition is apparent very early in development''. Regolin said the study, published this week in the Royal Society's Biology Letters, may offer a glimpse into the evolution of counting and could shed light on how it blossomed into more advanced mathematical thinking in humans.

The findings suggest that basic numeric skills arise in the right side of the brain, which processes sensory information from the left side of the body through a process called lateralization. But Regolin said that further study was needed to confirm the theory that a left-to-right ''number line'' was a common denominator for all counting animals.

Chickens are by no means the first animals to show this ability. Dogs, monkeys, squid and even salamanders have, to varying degrees, shown the ability to tabulate objects in numerical order. Another researcher from the University of Padua, Christian Agrillo has shown that lab-reared mosquito fish can differentiate between numbers up to 21.