Bears can count, take selfies, use tools, recognize supermodels, and even open car doors
Scientists studying bear intelligence want to know: What else can they learn?
Selfies occasionally go viral, but they’re not typically taken by an animal. So the fact that a black bear’s encounter with a motion-activated wildlife camera in Boulder, Colorado, in 2022 resulted in more than 400 of them—including an undeniably cute one with its tongue hanging out—is especially intriguing. Most creatures ignore camera traps. The question is: Why didn’t this bear?
It may be tempting to think of this selfie moment as an animal blunder, but this anecdote captures more than meets the eye. Research suggests bears, much like elephants and great apes, are more intelligent than previously assumed. The selfie bear is a unique reminder of a type of animal cognition scientists are just starting to understand.
“Bears are probably more naturally curious about how things work than some other species,” says Jennifer Vonk, a psychology professor at Oakland University.
Bears are generally impressive. They have an excellent sense of smell, seven times better than a bloodhound’s. Grizzly bears can run up to 35 miles per hour, beating the fastest human sprint by over 25 percent. Despite their bulk, bears are very dexterous—they can open screw-top jars, manipulate door latches, and even operate touchscreen computers with a talent that outpaces animals more closely related to people.
Vonk discovered this when she and a colleague trained captive-bred black bears to select a larger or smaller set of dots that stayed in place or moved around the screen. Although the ability to count or distinguish between different quantities has been tested in many animals, scientists didn’t think ursines had this ability because they are a solitary, rather than social, species. The “social intelligence hypothesis” suggests social animals are likelier to be smarter than solitary species because interactive environments offer more cognitive challenges.
[Related: Hibernating bears hold many secrets for better human health.]
The experiment proved otherwise. During the study, the size of the dots varied—in some trials, for example, the larger set of dots covered more area than the smaller set of dots. Conversely, the larger set could also cover a smaller area, which ultimately tested if black bears were making choices based on area or the number of dots. The animals performed above chance on all trials, showing they could use numbers to guide their choices. In other words, they could count. These results were published in the journal Animal Behavior.
“I was surprised how quickly the bears took to responding on the computer because we were training animals that had never done any kind of experiments,” says Vonk. “On literally the first day we tested, the dominant male went right to the images that moved around the screen without making any errors. And with almost every task we gave him, he learned faster than the chimps and gorillas I was working with at the same time.”
While bears have one of the largest relative brain sizes of any carnivore, there’s surprisingly little research regarding their cognitive abilities. This oversight may be due to logistics more than anything else. Most cognitive research happens in a laboratory; the animals that do well in these environments are smaller creatures, like rats, mice, and pigeons. Facilities that allow controlled testing with bears are scarce.
Despite these challenges, Vonk’s lab at Oakland University has worked to fill this gap in our understanding of bears since 2012. Another study conducted by Vonk suggests bears also recognize images on computer screens as real objects: During it, a captive black bear named Migwan was able to show that she prefers grapes over beets. While bears can recognize features of real objects in their virtual images, the researchers emphasized this doesn’t necessarily mean bears fully grasp what pictures are.
Another touchscreen study from the Vonk lab suggests bears can distinguish between different categories of things, such as animals versus non-animals. The bears were trained (with the help of a few treats) to choose between two rather odd and different groups: supermodels and Planet of the Apes characters. After that task was mastered, the bears were tested on more difficult subjects. For instance, the studied black bears could tell polar bears from other species of bears, primates from hoofed animals, or a chameleon from a car. They performed surprisingly well, even for the most abstract categories of distinguishing animals from non-animals.
Other research suggests black bears aren’t the only intelligent bear. For example, in a study of tool use published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, brown bears had to manipulate logs and boxes to reach a tempting reward: glazed donuts. Six of the eight bears in the study successfully completed the pastry-acquiring task and usually did so out in less than two minutes, explains lead author Lynne Nelson, a professor of veterinary cardiology at Washington University.
For decades, tool use was considered to be the defining characteristic of humans—something that proved how smart we are. The fact that bears can also use tools subsequently suggests some advanced intelligence.
Several factors may explain why bears are smart, though “more work needs to be done before we really know whether social structure or foraging ecology better predicts overall intelligence,” Vonk says.
“I think people are only starting to recognize that it’s an interaction of all these things,” she adds.
For now, there are some promising theories. Overall most animals living in social groups, like primates, exhibit high levels of intelligence. Scientists hypothesize that social animals evolved to have mental abilities that help them cooperate and understand others’ intentions. But bears, generally, are solitary. Their brains are less of a response to their social situation and more of a response to the challenging environments that they live in. Their ability to make quick, adaptive responses to these conditions may explain why their brains are relatively large compared to their body weight—a proportion that suggests intelligence.
Bear intelligence may also be the result of their early development; cubs start off life as curious little troublemakers. Gordon Burghardt, a professor of animal behavior at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, experienced this firsthand when two rescued black bear cubs stayed in his house for several weeks. He describes the inquisitive youngsters opening kitchen cabinets and sliding glass doors, climbing into the shower, and running off with purses. The cubs were also fond of playing with each other, which he posits helps with their development. Play is often thought to facilitate learning and mental development, as well as being a method of exercise and stress relief.
Black bears and brown bears are both generalists, showing great versatility in the food they eat, how they get it, and where they find it, Vonk explained. They hunt, scavenge, and also seek out plants, nuts, and fruit. Bears also adjust to a seasonally changing environment, gaining weight in the fall and hibernating in winter. This variable and unpredictable environment may have led to bears’ greater intelligence.
“Bears live in a vast range of environments from the deserts to the tropics and the Arctic,” Nelson adds. “Animals must exhibit a certain level of intelligence to be able to earn a living almost anywhere on the earth.”
[Related: What an ancient jawbone reveals about polar bear evolution]
The giant mammals face considerable challenges because of people too: the development of their habitats, hunting, pollution, cars, and climate change all put them at risk. Studying bear intelligence, in turn, does more than explain a natural wonder—it increases the likelihood that they’ll survive. Some scientists argue that people are more likely to protect animals when they realize the species are intelligent.
Bears, meanwhile, will continue to be as curious as ever. After the selfie black bear went viral, Canadian park rangers tweeted out their own celebrity: the selfie polar bear.