Study: Bears Show the Ability to Count
It looks like brown-coated Yogi Bear had it wrong: It's the black bear – one of Canada's most familiar and wide-ranging carnivores – that appears to be smarter than the average bear.
A Canadian psychologist specializing in animal behavior has found the first evidence that black bears have a counting ability comparable to that exhibited by some primates, the Victoria Times Colonist reported.
The discovery by research scientist Jennifer Vonk suggests the tree-climbing, garbage-loving animal that inhabits every province and territory in Canada except P.E.I. has an "ancient" knack for numbers, probably reflecting its relatively large brain size and shared evolutionary roots with fellow mammals like us.
"Our results are among the first to show that bears, an understudied species in comparative psychology and biology, may have evolved cognitive mechanisms equivalent to their distant primate relatives," conclude Vonk and U.S. co-author Michael Beran, an animal cognition specialist from Georgia State University, in a study published in the June issue of the journal Animal Behavior.
Vonk is a graduate of McMaster, Wilfrid Laurier and York universities in Ontario, and is now a psychology professor at Michigan's Oakland University.
She said Tuesday (June 19) that her study of bear intelligence grew out of a primate research project at a zoo in Mobile, Ala. "I was working with a chimpanzee," recalls Vonk, who was assessing the animal's cognitive abilities using a touch-screen computer monitor and recording its responses to simple tests.
She got to know three black bears living in the same facility – siblings named Bella, Brutus and Dusty, all born at the zoo – and wondered whether the bears would use a touch-screen.
Vonk said she was aware that bears are intelligent and "easy to train" – think Moscow circus bears juggling with their feet, or the Canadian cottage-country variety that learn to pry open trash bins of every description.
But scientifically speaking, "we know almost nothing about bear cognition," she said.
She received permission to set up her waterproof, specially reinforced test monitor against the bear enclosure's chain-link fence, then began teaching the trio that certain responses to the images appearing on the screen would win small food rewards.
Vonk coached the bears to "lick or touch their noses" to the screen to prevent their sharp-clawed paws from "scratching it to shreds."
And gradually they learned – led by the best counter, Brutus – to reliably select one picture of a square over another square based on the number of colored dots each contained. "We were kind of excited," said Vonk, noting that such behavior had not previously been documented among bear species.
Social animals, such as dogs or primates, are considered more likely to have "numerosity" skills because they rely on keeping tabs on their fellow group members for survival, said Vonk. But her new study – titled "Bears 'count' too: quantity estimation and comparison in black bears, ursus Americanus" – raises many questions about such undiscovered skills in other species, she added.
Vonk said the project also breaks new ground in being the first scientific study in which bears have used touch-screen computers. "They seemed to really enjoy the stimulation," said Vonk, although she acknowledged that they might have been equally attracted "by the treats" – something Yogi Bear, the cartoon bruin famous for stealing campers' picnic baskets at "Jellystone" park, could understand.