Well it turns out that fruit flies can count. But before you star throwing out all sorts of arithmetic problems at the little buggers circling your food waste bin, it isn’t all fruit flies. A team of geneticists have specifically bred a strain of fruit flies with the ability to count.
After 40 generations of trying to reinforce numeric skills, the scientists—a team made up of members from the University of California and Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada—finally hit their goal, and the species evolved.
The ultimate purpose of the project is two fold. First, to gain a better understanding of the way our brains process numbers. Secondly, the results could offer insights into the genetics of dyscalculia, a learning disability that disrupts the brain’s ability to perform basic counting actions.
During 20-minute training sessions, flies were repeatedly exposed to two, three, or four flashes of light. Two or four flashes coincided with an equal number of shakes of the containers they were kept in. There was a pause, then the flashes came again. None of the subjects prepared for the imminent shaking, or could differentiate between two, three, or four flashes. When the researches hit the 40th generation, however, that all changed.
Tristan Long, of Wilfrid Laurier, said, “The obvious next step is to see how [the flies’] neuro-architecture has changed.” The team will compare the genetics of the new strand of fruit flies with that of their unevolved brethren. After they pinpoint the precise mutation, more information can be extrapolated from the data.
These findings seem to support the theory that “numerical skills such as mental arithmetic are ancient constructs.” A number of other critters have displayed aptitude with rudimentary arithmetic in laboratory settings, including salamanders and newborn chicks. Fruit flies, however, are the first to get these abilities through evolution.