Small and large number discrimination in guppies

Laura Piffer, Christian Agrillo, Daniel C. Hyde

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Non-verbal numerical behavior in human infants, human adults, and non-human primates appears to be rooted in two distinct mechanisms: a precise system for tracking and comparing small numbers of items simultaneously (up to 3 or 4 items) and an approximate system for estimating numerical magnitude of a group of objects. The most striking evidence that these two mechanisms are distinct comes from the apparent inability of young human infants and non-human primates to compare quantites across the small (<3 or 4)/large (>4) number boundary. We ask whether this distinction is present in lower animal species more distantly related to humans, guppies (Poecilia reticulata). We found that, like human infants and non-human primates, fish succeed at comparisons between large numbers only (5 vs. 10), succeed at comparisons between small numbers only (3 vs. 4), but systematically fail at comparisons that closely span the small/large boundary (3 vs. 5). Furthermore, increasing the distance between the small and large number resulted in successful discriminations (3 vs. 6, 3 vs. 7, and 3 vs. 9). This pattern of successes and failures is similar to those observed in human infants and non-human primates to suggest that the two systems are present and functionally distinct across a wide variety of animal species.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)215-221
Number of pages7
JournalAnimal cognition
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 2012
Externally publishedYes


  • Analog magnitude
  • Numerical cognition
  • Object file

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology


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