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The Average Bear is Smarter than We Thought

by Belinda Recio

Bears can count, use tools, solve problems and communicate—with us.

The more scientists learn about animals, the more it seems that every species—from forager ants (who have demonstrated self-awareness by recognizing themselves in a mirror) to humpback whales (who compose lengthy, stylized songs that contain rhyming phrases)—has its own kind of sentience and intelligence. Even familiar animals, such as dogs and cats, are constantly surprising us with their emotional sensitivities and cognitive abilities. Dogs have shown us that they have a sense of fairness and are capable of understanding not only words, but even conceptual categories. Cats—despite their reputation for being disinterested and aloof—seem to be able to read our moods and look to us for clues about how to respond to novel situations.

Another animal whose intelligence is finally being recognized is the bear. It seems strange that scientists have only recently started to explore bear intelligence because wild bears have long been known for their problem-solving abilities that enable them to get into “bear-proof” trashcans, open door latches, and manipulate other barriers to reach food. Captive bears have demonstrated an even greater capacity for learning, and have been trained to ride bikes, roller skate, play musical instruments and engage in other complex tasks.

For a long time, one of the hallmarks of intelligence was tool use, and both wild and captive bears have been observed using objects as tools. In the wild, grizzly bears have been seen using branches as back scratchers and rocks and shells to scratch their faces. Captive bears are no less resourceful. Animal trainer Doug Seus once saw a captive grizzly use a plank of wood to create a bridge over a patch of thorny branches so that he could traverse the spiky terrain without injury.

"In the wild , grizzly bears have been seen using branches as back scratchers and rocks and shells to scratch their faces. Captive bears are no less resourceful."

A few years ago, researchers at Washington State University’s Bear Research Education and Conservation Center decided to conduct a formal study of tool use by grizzlies. The researchers hung donuts out of reach and left a stump nearby, on its side. To access the donuts, the bears needed to figure out how to roll the stump directly under the suspended donut, flip the stump onto its flat side to create a makeshift footstool, and then use it to reach the donut.

One bear, named Kio, was the first to figure it out. Biologist Lynne Nelson, who directed the study, said that Kio clearly demonstrated that she understood how to manipulate an object in order to achieve a goal, which qualifies as tool use. Nelson and her colleagues also observed grizzlies using other objects in tool-like ways, including using a single claw in a key-like manner to try to open locks.

Else Poulsen—a biologist who devoted her life to the care and study of bears—witnessed compelling evidence of bear intelligence throughout her career. Poulsen described one grizzly who developed a gesture for requesting a bath. When this grizzly wanted to bathe, she would run her paws over her body in a washing motion. According to Poulsen, other bears communicated by gesture, too. When in pain, some of the captive bears would point with their noses to the part of their body that hurt and then bite their paws to communicate to Poulsen that they were hurt.

Grizzlies are not the only bear species whose intelligence has surprised scientists. Psychologist Jennifer Vonk taught three American black bear siblings—named Bella, Brutus and Dusty—to use a touch screen computer by touching it with their noses or tongues. Vonk taught the bears to use it to find out if bears could differentiate between quantities, or count.

So bears aren’t just smart—they are really smart: They can count, use tools, solve problems, communicate across the species divide, and more. And they are emotionally complex, too. Poulsen told another story about captive bears communicating with gestures. In the same group of bears that communicated physical pain by pointing and biting, there was a young bear that was repeatedly shunned by the other bears in her enclosure. When this bear wanted to play with the others and was rejected, she used the same gesture, biting on her paw, to indicate that she was in pain. There was nothing physically wrong with the bear, so Poulsen interpreted it as the bear’s way of communicating emotional pain. Poulsen’s story reminds us that there are far more commonalities of heart and mind between humans and other animals than we ever imagined.

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