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Can fish learn simple math? They can when it comes to a treat.

It’s no surprise that Harry and Hermione knew that 4 – 1 = 3. But what if I told you that Harry and Hermione aren’t characters from the Harry Potter stories, they’re stingrays? And they can still do this kind of math.

A study from Germany’s University of Bonn tested the mathematical abilities of several freshwater stingrays named after Harry Potter characters. They also tested a type of African fish called a cichlid (pronounced SICK-lid), giving them names like Jennifer and Tiffany.

Seeing if the fish could do math was akin to training a dog.

“You provide a reward system,” said study co-author and zoologist Vera Schluessel. “So if they do something right, they get an award.” In this case, the treats were food pellets for the cichlids and earthworms, shrimp or mussels for the rays.

For example, suppose the researchers show a fish a card that contains four shapes, such as small circles or squares. All the shapes were blue. He was then shown two new cards: one with three blue shapes and one with five. If the fish touched the card with three shapes with its nose, it left without a prize. However, touching his nose to the card with five shapes earned him a treat. Over time, the fish learned that the blue shapes on the original card meant that he needed to “add one” to the original number of shapes.

The researchers did the same experiment with yellow shapes. But in this case, the fish learned to “subtract one.”

Schluessel and his team have been working with fish for years. “We weren’t surprised that it worked,” she says, “because they had done a lot of wonderful things before this study.”

About half of the fish managed to learn the task. In general, the rays did better than the cichlids, although Schluessel said that the cichlids did better than the rays in some of his other studies. In general, “all the fish preferred also”.

The study tested only the abilities of the fish up to the number 5. With small numbers like these, humans can also easily see how many items there are. However, “if you look at seven dots, you don’t know there are seven. Could be six. It could be eight,” says Schluessel. “You have to take a second and count”, which is not easy for a fish.

Other animals have also been shown to recognize smaller numbers, including salamanders and mockingbirds. Similar to Schluessel’s fish, bees can add and subtract.

But why do fish need to do math? Schluessel says that’s “a very good question.” It makes sense that they know to recognize “more” versus “less” when it comes to assessing which food source is more abundant or wanting to join a larger group that will provide more protection from predators. But scientists don’t know why they would need to add or subtract.

However, understanding their abilities gives humans a greater understanding of fish and perhaps helps them respect them more. Key hopes that people of all ages will think, “Wow, fish are great.”

A reminder from the KidsPost team: Our stories are geared toward kids ages 7-13. We welcome discussion from readers of all ages, but please follow our community guidelines and make comments appropriate for that age group.

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