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An adult female chimpanzee with previous training in the use of Arabic numerals 1-9 was introduced to the meaning of "zero" in the context of three different numerical tasks. The first two were cardinal tasks where the subject was required either to select numerals corresponding to the number of items presented on a computer screen (productive use of numerals) or to match sets of the appropriate size to numerals presented as samples (receptive use). The third task addressed the ordinal meaning of the same symbols where the subject was required to respond to numerals sequentially, arranging them into an ascending series. The subject mastered the recognition of the meaning of zero in all three tasks. However, details of her usage of the symbol revealed that transfer of the meaning between different kinds of tasks was incomplete, suggesting that the level of abstraction characteristic of human numerical ability was not attained in the chimpanzee. Over the course of acquisition leading to the high levels of accuracy eventually observed, the newly introduced zero appeared to shift along the length of a continuous numerical scale toward the lower end, while confusions with 1 remained the most frequently encountered mistakes. Such patterns of error thus suggest that Ai's understanding of the meaning of zero in relation to the rest of the number symbols was not consistent with an "absence of items versus presence of items" scheme.

Original publication




Journal article


Anim Cogn

Publication Date





193 - 199