Zero is a very complex concept for understanding. Quantitative measures of things – whether bundles of bananas, human societies or wooden blocks for construction – are necessary for our existence. But “nothing”, the lack of something, from the point of view of the brain – is quite another. For people, for example, it was very difficult to understand this concept. Our ability to understand zero as a separate numerical value has become an important part of mathematics, engineering and technology. But recently we learned that other animals also acquired an understanding of “nothing.”
Some species of primates and birds, such as rhesus macaques and African gray parrots, can define “nothing” as “something.” Recently, the journal Science also reported that honey bees are also included in the club of animal mathematicians.
We know about bees not fools for a long time. Previously, scientists found that bees have intelligent mechanisms for counting and dividing objects in quantities of up to four. This is already impressive. In a new study, scientists from RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, wanted to know if bees can understand zero as a separate value. And the team was surprised to learn that they can. Bees distinguish zero from one unit more often than do not distinguish, and this success grows when higher values are compared with zero.
To make bees count, scientists used sweetened water as a reward. The bees were shown cards with a different number of symbols, and they received sugar water when they sat down on the card with fewer symbols. The bees understood the task and always flew to the card with fewer symbols. It's amazing. Then the scientists showed the bees cards, on which either there was one symbol, or nothing. The bees made the right choice, indicating that they understand that “nothing” is less than one in the numerical scale. It was even easier for bees to distinguish zero from a larger number, four or five.
How do animals with so few neurons understand this complex mathematical concept? Scientists do not know until now. But research shows that “mathematically talented” species have a group of neurons – “number neurons” – that can work especially in the direction of numerical comparisons and quantitative understanding. These cells react differently to the number of components presented. Perhaps this is the secret.