Baby chicks seem to process numbers the same way humans do—with small ones starting on the left, according to a new study. The research out of Italy suggests that this "mental number line," considered fundamental to math, might be hard-wired into the brains of living creatures rather than something that's taught, reports the BBC. As LiveScience puts it, the results mean that animals don't necessarily need "words for numbers to have a sense of their relative sizes." In the first step of the study, scientists trained the chicks to find food behind a panel with five dots. Then they added a panel to the left and one to the right, each with an equal number of dots. If that number was lower than five, the chicks generally went to the left to get their food. If the number was higher than five, they went right.
The researchers then repeated the experiment with a completely different set of numbered dots, and the results were the same: The chicks associated the left with lower numbers and the right with higher numbers. “We cannot think of any other, and simpler, explanation for the behavior of the chicks than assuming the training number is 1) remembered and 2) compared with the number seen at test," the lead researcher tells the New York Times. An expert in the spatial concept of numbers who was not involved with the study tells the newspaper that the findings are "very cool," adding that he hopes it leads to more insights about the "building blocks" of our brains. (An earlier study found that the average dog was as smart as a 2-year-old human.)