Land & Environment

USU Researcher Finds Coyotes Possess Rudimentary Quantitative Abilities

Kerry Jordan, a Utah State University faculty member in the Department of Psychology, and doctoral student Joseph Baker, report that coyotes are capable of reliably discriminating between different quantities of items.

Their findings were published in August 2011 in the journal Behavioural Processes. The research was conducted in conjunction with faculty from USU’s College of Natural Resources.

“Although quantitative processing was once thought to be the unique domain of humans, many animals have been shown to possess systematic quantitative processing skills,” Jordan said. “The possible evolutionary precursors to more complex mathematical abilities, however, are very rough and approximate.”

Working at the USDA National Wildlife Research Center’s Logan Field Station at USU, Jordan and her colleagues tested 16 coyotes in their abilities to choose the larger of two food options.

Specifically, researchers presented two piles of food items to each coyote and let them choose which to eat. Each pile contained different numbers of food items. On some occasions the piles contained similar numbers of food items and coyotes had to choose between eating three or four food items, for example. On other occasions, the piles contained widely different numbers with a choice between eating one item or four items, for instance.

“As is the case with many other animal species, we found that coyotes are capable of discriminating large versus small quantities of food, so long as the quantities are appropriately distinct. For example, the coyotes only performed near chance expectations (a 50:50 ratio) when their choice was between 3 and 4 food items. However, for choices between 1 and 4 food items, their probability of success rose to near 80 percent,” Jordan said.

“These abilities and error patterns are very similar to those of humans when we are estimating or making rapid quantitative judgments,” Jordan said. “This work is further evidence that comprehension of quantity is not a uniquely human attribute but is, instead, an attribute we likely share with many other species.”

Jordan joined the Psychology Department at USU in 2007 as an assistant professor. She completed her undergraduate degree at Harvard University where she graduated magna cum laude in psychology and biology with a specialization in cognitive neuroscience. She earned a doctorate at Duke University in psychology and neuroscience with a specialization in cognitive development.

Related links:

Tracking of food quantity by coyotes,” Behavioural Processes, August 2011

USU Department of Psychology

USU Emma Eccles Jones College of Education and Human Services

Contact: Kerry Jordan, (435) 797-2797.

coyote approaches food for USU study

A coyote approaches food at the USDA National Wildlife Research Center's Logan Field Station at USU. Here, researchers observe coyotes in habitats similar to natural ones; coyotes have behavioral repertoires similar to those documented in the wild.

coyote in study with food

Baker and colleagues identified systematic, rudimentary quantitative skills in coyotes. Here, a coyote in the study has just made a choice between one of two food quantities, and is eating its chosen quantity.


Research 545stories Wildlife 104stories Psychology 20stories

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