Evolutionary foundations of number: Spontaneous representation of numerical magnitudes by cotton-top tamarins

Marc D. Hauser, Fritz Tsao, Patricia Garcia, Elizabeth S. Spelke

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

115 Scopus citations


Although animals of many species have been shown to discriminate between visual-spatial arrays or auditory-temporal sequences based on numerosity, most of the evidence for numerosity discrimination derives from experiments involving extensive laboratory training. Under these conditions, animals' discrimination of two numerosities depends on their ratio and is independent of their absolute value. It is an open question whether any untrained non-human animal spontaneously represents number in this way, as do human children and adults. We present the results of familiarization-discrimination experiments on cotton-top tamarin monkeys (Saguinus oedipus) that provide evidence for numerosity discrimination in the absence of training. Presented with auditory stimuli (speech syllables) controlled for the continuous variables of sequence duration, item duration, inter-stimulus interval and overall energy, tamarins readily discriminated sequences of 4 versus 8, 4 versus 6, and 8 versus 12 syllables. By contrast, tamarins failed to discriminate sequences of 4 versus 5 and 8 versus 10 syllables, providing evidence that their numerosity discrimination is approximate and shows the ratio signature of numerosity discrimination in humans and trained non-human animals. These results provide strong support for the hypothesis that representations of large, approximate numerosity are evolutionarily ancient and spontaneously available to non-human animals.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1441-1446
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1523
StatePublished - Jul 22 2003
Externally publishedYes


  • Comparative evidence
  • Evolution
  • Number representations
  • Primates

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Immunology and Microbiology
  • General Environmental Science
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


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