Sunday, April 11, 2010

Bear Intelligence

Because of the slow, plodding nature of bears, they're not really thought of as being all that intelligent, even though circus bears are trained to ride bikes and roller skates, play musical instruments, and other routines of such remarkable complexity that no other animal could master them. Most people overlook this instead of realizing that it speaks to a high level of intelligence and cognitive ability within the bear. In fact, they've been found to have a brain almost as convoluted as that of a human being and many biologists readily admit that bears are equal to the great apes and even dolphins in their intelligence. Some take that a step farther and claim that some bears have the IQ of a three-year-old child.

What's most interesting is that this level of intelligence and cognitive reasoning is not often observed among bears in the wild. A possible explanation for this is that a bear in the wild is so driven by the single-minded purpose of survival and finding enough food before the onset of winter that the full scope of what they're capable of must often take a backseat to wild instinct. Researchers like Else Poulsen and Doug Seus have shown that when a bear is kept in captivity, well-fed, cared for, and given a stress-free life, the other side of their nature becomes more apparent and takes precedence over instinct.

Doug Seus has worked with grizzlies for 33 years and says that never a day goes by when he's not amazed by what they're capable of. He says that his Kodiak Bart the Bear was at least as intelligent as a chimpanzee and was still not that remarkably intelligent as grizzlies go. He recounts a story in which a flash flood had washed a Coke can and a thorny hawthorn tree into a ditch alongside his Utah home. Bart attempted to retrieve the can but was deterred by the sharp thorns. Looking back and forth from the can to a two by twelve plank lying nearby, Bart picked up the plank and used it to press the branches down so he could retrieve the can.

Else Poulsen witnessed some of the most amazing evidence of intelligence while working with captive bears as a rehabilitator for a zoo. A grizzly would run her paws over herself in a washing motion to indicate that she wanted a bath and would use her nose to point to the part of her body that she wanted washed. If in pain, the bears would point with their noses to whatever it was that hurt and would then bite down on their paws to indicate pain. One young bear - shunned from play by two older bears - did the same thing, apparently to indicate emotional pain. The polar bears showed the greatest intelligence, one very pointedly demonstrating to Poulsen why frozen chickens don't make good toys: they thaw out in water! Likewise, Charlie Russell's bear Chico seemed to understand Russell's interest in bears and taught him a simple greeting that they shared only between each other.

Lily the Black Bear was seemingly smart enough to associate her den cam with Lynn Rogers. Whacking it with her paw during play, she gazed wide-eyed at the camera, sniffed it, licked it, and cooed reassuringly at it in the same way that she would to calm her cub, all of this apparently an apologetic gesture.

Larry Kaniut's Alaska Bear Tales tells the story of a hunter who encountered two grizzlies. He shot and killed one and pursued when the other one, a female, ran. He cornered the grizzly in a river trying to climb a steep embankment, but the slope was too muddy and she kept sliding back into the water. Trapped between the slope and the man, the hunter said the bear moaned and wailed when he raised the gun. Surprised, he lowered the gun....and then raised it again. He did this repeatedly, getting the same reaction each time the weapon was raised. Finally, he says that the bear lowered her head into the water and drowned herself. As disgusting and horrifying as the story is, if it's true it says a lot about a bear's cognitive ability and - for me - explains why some attacks against humans are so aggressive and merciless.

In Stephen Herrero's Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance, the story is told of a radio-collared black bear being tracked on foot by a researcher while the man's father patrolled overhead in an airplane. In order to throw off his tracker, the bear built several nests in different locations, then entered a stream, backtracked 50 yards, and slipped into thick foliage. The man refused to give up and by late afternoon, the sun was melting the snow and rocks appeared. The bear used this to his advantage, stepping from rock to rock, leaving no trail behind. Finally the researcher picked up the tracks again and followed them until they stopped, disappearing into thin air. This time the bear had walked backwards, placing his feet precisely into his tracks, and went back in the opposite direction, eluding the man.

Ben Kilham's Among the Bears recounts his experiences raising several different sets of cubs in New Hampshire. Not only did his work show how impressionable they are in their youth and how one bad experience during that formative time can scar them for life, but also that they're capable of altruism, a quality that was previously only thought to be found in human beings. But not only did they show altruism for other bears, but for other forms of life that they encountered! They demonstrated how clever, intelligent, and adaptable to changes in their environment they really are. Testing that intelligence, Kilham presented them with a mirror, hoping to find evidence of self-awareness. In every case, the young bears reacted as if they were meeting another bear, but after sniffing the mirror and running circles around it to find the other bear, they seemed to decide that they were looking at their reflections. They were observed dragging objects in front of the mirror and playing while watching themselves. Kilham concluded that it would never be enough to convince most scientists, but it seemed to him a demonstration of some level of self-awareness.

Perhaps the best and most famous example of this level of intelligence being observed in the wild was with the Mud Creek Grizzly of Glacier National Park. The bear had been captured twice by biologists over a two year period for research purposes. Finally the bear decided he'd had enough of that and began to fight back. After a trap site had been set up with bait and cameras, he would sneak into the area, tear down the plastic strips that marked the trail to the site, set off the traps with rocks and sticks, steal the bait, gnaw on the camera until it popped open, remove the film cartridge, and smash it on a rock. This happened several times before biologists decided it best to leave the animal alone before it started taking its frustration out on one research bear did in 2003. This bear was first captured by biologists during the Exxon-Valdez oil spill in Alaska and was tracked down, tranquilized, and captured every summer thereafter. When released for the last time, the researchers reported it as exhibiting "strong, abnormal aggression towards human beings" (Gee, I wonder why). A short time later, the bear was killed and identified as being responsible for the deaths of Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend. That should be a very clear warning to biologists and researchers whose actions towards an animal that they don't fully understand could end in disaster somewhere down the line. Unfortunately, it's a warning that I don't think many will even bother to acknowledge.

These are just a few of the countless examples of bear intelligence and cognition that are out there, so the next time someone says you're smarter than the average bear, you can rest assured that you're pretty well off.


  1. Wonderful article. Thanks. On the self awareness test, I think scientists have moved on a bit from the mirror test and looking at more of a totality of the animal.

  2. Awesome read! I wish our state legislators would read this when considering another hunt of our precious Florida black bear!!!

  3. Thank you! I wish they would too!