A remarkable new study published in the journal Animal Behavior documents how black bears have demonstrated an ability to recognize different quantities of things.
Black bears, or Ursus Americanus, have the largest relative brain size of any carnivore, but few studies have attempted to assess the bears’ mental capacities. That is until Jennifer Vonk, an assistant professor in Psychology at Oakland University, and her team devised an experiment involving three captive North American black bears being trained how to use a simple touch screen computer.
After the bears were familiarized with the technology, they were presented with two sets of dots, or what the paper refers to as “arrays.” The researchers wanted to see if the bears were capable of of recognizing and choosing between more and less dots in the arrays. The bears touched the screen to select one or other of the arrays, and were rewarded with food when they got a right answer. Two of the bears were rewarded for distinguishing an array with fewer dots, and one bear was rewarded for distinguishing an array with more dots.
Due to the fact that researchers wanted to ensure that the bears were not just estimating magnitude, or the dots relative to the area in which the dots were housed, which is a skill that a lot of animals have demonstrated, they concentrated on having the bears show they could actually quantify, which is a separate and much more difficult skill to acquire.
On some trials, the relative number of dots was congruent with the relative total area of the two arrays. On other trials, number of dots was incongruent with area. All of the bears were above chance on trials of both types with static dots. Despite encountering greater difficulty with dots that moved within the arrays, one bear was able to discriminate numerically larger arrays of moving dots, and a subset of moving dots from within the larger array, even when area and number were incongruent. Thus, although the bears used area as a cue to guide their responses, they were also able to use number as a cue. The pattern of performance was similar to that found previously with monkeys, and suggests that bears may also show other forms of sophisticated quantitative abilities.
These are the first findings to show that black bears may have cognitive abilities on par with some primates, and it opens the door for further research into the extent of the black bears’ cognitive abilities.
“I’ve been working for a while with these bears… but simultaneously I was working with a chimpanzee,” said Assistant Professor Vonk.
“I find that their abilities so far in terms of categorisation and forming more abstract concepts seem quite comparable.”
The techniques used to research the bears’ skills could be used in the future to look at bear cognition in more depth.
“It really opens up the door to asking all kinds of comparative and cognitive questions with a species that really hasn’t been investigated in that way before,” she said.
However, one small note of caution: the paper on these findings notes that saying the bears can “count” might be stretching the import of the study: quantity estimation is the preferred term because to establish that the bears are actually able to delineate the number of things they are presented with — rather than just identifying “more” or “less” — would require several different tests.
That said, these findings are important in a number of ways, not least to mention that demonstrating bears are capable of higher cognitive abilities may be important in persuading legislators and local government officials of the need to give bears greater protections.