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Anim Cogn. 2011 Jan;14(1):103-15. doi: 10.1007/s10071-010-0348-3. Epub 2010 Sep 16.

Free-ranging dogs assess the quantity of opponents in intergroup conflicts.

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  • 1Dipartimento di Biologia Evolutiva e Funzionale, Università di Parma, Viale Usberti 11/A, Parma, Italy. rbonanni75@gmail.com


In conflicts between social groups, the decision of competitors whether to attack/retreat should be based on the assessment of the quantity of individuals in their own and the opposing group. Experimental studies on numerical cognition in animals suggest that they may represent both large and small numbers as noisy mental magnitudes subject to scalar variability, and small numbers (≤4) also as discrete object-files. Consequently, discriminating between large quantities, but not between smaller ones, should become easier as the asymmetry between quantities increases. Here, we tested these hypotheses by recording naturally occurring conflicts in a population of free-ranging dogs, Canis lupus familiaris, living in a suburban environment. The overall probability of at least one pack member approaching opponents aggressively increased with a decreasing ratio of the number of rivals to that of companions. Moreover, the probability that more than half of the pack members withdrew from a conflict increased when this ratio increased. The skill of dogs in correctly assessing relative group size appeared to improve with increasing the asymmetry in size when at least one pack comprised more than four individuals, and appeared affected to a lesser extent by group size asymmetries when dogs had to compare only small numbers. These results provide the first indications that a representation of quantity based on noisy mental magnitudes may be involved in the assessment of opponents in intergroup conflicts and leave open the possibility that an additional, more precise mechanism may operate with small numbers.

[PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]
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