We make magnitude-related decisions every day, for example, to choose the shortest queue at the grocery store. When making such decisions, which magnitudes do we consider? The dominant theory suggests that our focus is on numerical quantity, i.e., the number of items in a set. This theory leads to quantity-focused research suggesting that discriminating quantities is automatic, innate, and is the basis for mathematical abilities in humans. Another theory suggests, instead, that non-numerical magnitudes, such as the total area of the compared items, are usually what humans rely on, and numerical quantity is used only when required. Since wild animals must make quick magnitude-related decisions to eat, seek shelter, survive, and procreate, studying which magnitudes animals spontaneously use in magnitude-related decisions is a good way to study the relative primacy of numerical quantity versus non-numerical magnitudes. We asked whether, in an animal model, the influence of non-numerical magnitudes on performance in a spontaneous magnitude comparison task is modulated by the number of non-numerical magnitudes that positively correlate with numerical quantity. Our animal model was the Archerfish, a fish that, in the wild, hunts insects by shooting a jet of water at them. These fish were trained to shoot water at artificial targets presented on a computer screen above the water tank. We tested the Archerfish's performance in spontaneous, untrained two-choice magnitude decisions. We found that the fish tended to select the group containing larger non-numerical magnitudes and smaller quantities of dots. The fish selected the group containing more dots mostly when the quantity of the dots was positively correlated with all five different non-numerical magnitudes. The current study adds to the body of studies providing direct evidence that in some cases animals’ magnitude-related decisions are more affected by non-numerical magnitudes than by numerical quantity, putting doubt on the claims that numerical quantity perception is the most basic building block of mathematical abilities.
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