Smarter Than Your Average Bear

Oct 4, 2014

The Rock Doc, Kirsten Peters
Credit Washington State University

WSU is known for its smart Cougars. But soon it could have a reputation for something else – intelligent bears. Bears that use tools, like some primates and birds. Veterinary student Alex Waroff tested the bears’ intelligence, and found some surprising results. WSU’s Rock Doc, Kirsten Peters, has the story of WSU’s bright bears.

Alex Waroff had a fantastic summer job this year. The veterinary student at Washington State University worked with faculty members as they tested just how clever grizzly bears are. What’s at issue is the use of tools.

As Waroff said to me, “Besides primates, scientists know that certain birds, dolphins, and elephants use tools. Tool use might seem to be more common in social creatures. Bears are a little hard to categorize in that regard, because they live with their mother when young, then are solitary as adults.”

Dr. O. Lynne Nelson of WSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine has been working with Waroff on bears living in a facility at the edge of the university campus. Some of the bears were born in captivity, others were brought in from the wild where they had become problem bears and were in danger of being destroyed.

Nelson put it to me this way: “The idea of tool use is that an animal utilizes an object and manipulates it to achieve a goal. If a bear picks up a box and puts it down where it’s useful to place it so the bear can stand on it and reach something, that’s tool use.”

Waroff and company have been testing eight bears, one by one, to see whether a glazed donut reward will inspire the bruins to use tools. This summer they have been suspending a donut out in a play area. In the large pen are such things as sawed-off tree stumps and boxes. The researchers videotaped what the bears did as they tried to reach the donut.

First, the bears learned to stand on a stump and reach the donut that way. Then the next step was for the bears to be tested about moving the stump.

All but two of the bears pretty quickly picked up on moving the stump to where it was needed.

“Then we had a big box, too, and a different stump” Waroff said. “Some bears stacked them when the donut was suspended at high levels.”

A 9-year old female named Kio has gone to the head of her class in the experiments.

Waroff noted that bears can live to be 30 or 40 years old. So Kio is still relatively young.

The bears in the WSU experiments seem to enjoy the puzzles that have been set for them this summer. Waroff and Nelson view the experiments as good enrichment for the bruins.

As Waroff put it: “With research, getting findings whatever they may be is the real goal. But it’s been interesting documenting tool use.”

Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.