Wild brown bear observed using a tool

Mar 07, 2012 by Bob Yirka report
Image (c) Volker Deecke

(PhysOrg.com) -- Because brown bears are so reclusive, not to mention dangerous to be around, not a lot is really known about their brain power. This is actually rather odd because bears have the largest brains for their body size of all carnivores and are thought to be rather clever, though mostly through anecdotal evidence. Now comes news of British researcher Volker Deecke of the University of Cumbria, who while on vacation in Alaska, came across a brown bear using a rock covered with barnacles to help alleviate the itch associated with molting. Deecke photographed the use of the tool by the bear and has published his findings in Animal Cognition.

Bears of many varieties have very often been seen rubbing themselves against trees and rocks to help ease the itching that results when they replace their winter fur with a lighter summer coat. But never before has a bear of any kind been spotted picking up rocks to use as tools to help them better get at those places that itch. In fact, this discovery is only the fourth observed use of tools by any non-primate animal. Elephants commonly use branches to ward off flies and dolphins have been caught using to hide their rostrum and some whales use bubbles to help in catching fish. Using a rock specifically chosen to perform a certain task, however, is clearly a demonstration of higher intelligence.

Deecke, who normally studies whales, was watching a couple of feed on a whale carcass on the shores of Glacier Bay, when one of them began searching the bottom of the sea for something. A moment later, the bear reached down and grabbed a rock, which Deecke could clearly see was covered with barnacles, and began rubbing it against its face and neck. Thus it appeared that not just any rock would do, it had to be covered with barnacles which would do a better job in scratching. It wasn’t just a fluke either. After a while, the bear dropped the rock, moseyed around, and after some time searched for and retrieved another rock. In all the bear repeated the whole exercise three times, retrieving three different rocks, all covered with , which he used for scratching at his itchy hide. Deecke also noted that the bear manipulated the rock in his paw before scratching, moving it into the optimal position for the best possible scratch, a type of activity previously only seen with humans and other primates.

Deecke suggests that more research ought to be focused on bears because clearly they are capable of far more than has been realized.

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More information: Tool-use in the brown bear (Ursus arctos), Animal Cognition, DOI: 10.1007/s10071-012-0475-0

Abstract
This is the first report of tool-using behaviour in a wild brown bear (Ursus arctos). Whereas the use of tools is comparatively common among primates and has also been documented in several species of birds, fishes and invertebrates, tool-using behaviours have so far been observed in only four species of non-primate mammal. The observation was made and photographed while studying the behaviour of a subadult brown bear in south-eastern Alaska. The animal repeatedly picked up barnacle-encrusted rocks in shallow water, manipulated and re-oriented them in its forepaws, and used them to rub its neck and muzzle. The behaviour probably served to relieve irritated skin or to remove food-remains from the fur. Bears habitually rub against stationary objects and overturn rocks and boulders during foraging and such rubbing behaviour could have been transferred to a freely movable object to classify as tool-use. The bear exhibited considerable motor skills when manipulating the rocks, which clearly shows that these animals possess the advanced motor learning necessary for tool-use. Advanced spatial cognition and motor skills for object manipulation during feeding and tool-use provide a possible explanation for why bears have the largest brains relative to body size of all carnivores. Systematic research into the cognitive abilities of bears, both in captivity and in the wild, is clearly warranted to fully understand their motor-learning skills and physical intelligence related to tool-use and other object manipulation tasks.

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User comments : 20

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clarkjeff
4.5 / 5 (8) Mar 07, 2012
A ranger at a national park claimed that it is challenging to design a bear-proof trash can that most humans can open. The smartest bears have more mechanical aptitude than some of the least clever humans. The bears are also more highly motivated to get things out of the trash can than many tourists are to get their debris in.
Birger
5 / 5 (2) Mar 07, 2012
It is fortunate they do not have opposable thumbs to help them pick locks on doors.
Modernmystic
3.7 / 5 (6) Mar 07, 2012
FTA:
This is actually rather odd because bears have the largest brains for their body size of all carnivores


Brown bears, like most bears, are omnivores. Anyone who lives around them and actually knows anything about them knows this obvious fact...

Secondly bottlenose dolphins, who actually ARE carnivores, have a higher body to brain ratio than any bear you care to name, and they also use tools...

One wonders why you'd keep reading the article with such blatant mistakes and false premises in the initial paragraph.

...and are thought to be rather clever, though mostly through anecdotal evidence.


People who live around these things know they're good at getting into places with food, but it's because when fully grown they are stupendously strong...not because they pick locks. They're not known for being particularly clever, but just insanely aggressive (especially sows with cubs).
antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (4) Mar 07, 2012
This is actually rather odd because bears have the largest brains for their body size of all carnivores

animals (and people) will use the easiest way to accomplish a goal. If you're endowed with a hefty dose of muscles then the easiest approach is often not 'using a tool' but simply 'hitting it until it opens/dies'. This is not a sign of a lack of intelligence.

As for brain size: It's very iffy to compare brain sizes. Some animal brains have different structures because they have to cope with different environments (e.g. more glia cells for insulation beacuse of exposure to harsh cold weather, a denser vascular system, ... ). The real measure should be number of neurons and interconnections.
cmdea
5 / 5 (4) Mar 07, 2012

Brown bears, like most bears, are omnivores. Anyone who lives around them and actually knows anything about them knows this obvious fact...


"Carnivore" can refer to both the dietary style and a member of the order "Carnivora," which bears are.
drel
5 / 5 (8) Mar 07, 2012
In fact, this discovery is only the fourth observed use of tools by any non-primate animal.


So please help me understand... of the following list which ones are actually Primates?
1.Elephants
2.Dolphins
3.Otters
4.Birds (many species)
5.Cephalopods
6.Dingos

Richardmcsquared
not rated yet Mar 07, 2012
Oh no He'll nick my sub aqua pica nic basket
julianpenrod
not rated yet Mar 07, 2012
Often, important points go all but completely ingored. Notice the reference to most descriptions of bears being "clever" as being largely anecdotal. Yet, now, that has been borne out by "official" "scientific" methods. What is considered "science" didn't really develop until relatively recently, yet medicines were prepared, buidlings built, items made using previously anecdotal advice, and much of that anecdotal information came to e incorporated in "science" but only after receiving the imprimatur of the field. And there don't seem to be any "studies" to determine just how reliable anecdotal information really is, apparently to keep referring to it as useless and defining only "science" as useful.
AnneR
not rated yet Mar 07, 2012
FTA:
This is actually rather odd because bears have the largest brains for their body size of all carnivores


Brown bears, like most bears, are omnivores. Anyone who lives around them and actually knows anything about them knows this obvious fact...


There is a difference between the everyday English meaning of "carnivore" and the meaning to biologists. In biology, "carnivore" means "belonging to the order Carnivora", which brown bears (and all bears) do.

It means that bears, cats, lions, tigers, weasles, elephant seals, etc. are all descended from the same carnivorous ancestor. Today, they may have adapted to differing lifestyles. Cats are obligate carnivores. Bears vary - from exclusively carnivorous (such as polar bears), omnivorous (such as brown bears and most other bears), to mostly herbivorous (such as pandas). All of them retain features of the carnivora.
HealingMindN
not rated yet Mar 07, 2012
So please help me understand... of the following list which ones are actually Primates?
1.Elephants
2.Dolphins
3.Otters
4.Birds (many species)
5.Cephalopods
6.Dingos


The proposal that one type of animal could descend from an animal of another type goes back to some of the first pre-Socratic Greek philosophers, such as Anaximander and Empedocles. http://en.wikiped...volution

Therefore, if not primates, from which animal group in the above list would you prefer to descend? Did you know that some people believe they are descendants of dragons because it's the year of the dragon?
Urgelt
5 / 5 (3) Mar 07, 2012
So please help me understand... of the following list which ones are actually Primates?
1.Elephants
2.Dolphins
3.Otters
4.Birds (many species)
5.Cephalopods
6.Dingos


The proposal that one type of animal could descend from an animal of another type goes back to some of the first pre-Socratic Greek philosophers, such as Anaximander and Empedocles. http://en.wikiped...volution

Therefore, if not primates, from which animal group in the above list would you prefer to descend? Did you know that some people believe they are descendants of dragons because it's the year of the dragon?


You missed his point entirely, HealingMindN.

He's pointing out, with irony, that more than four non-primate species have been spotted using tools. Quite a lot more, if you consider all the birds that have been spotted doing it.

The article errs.
rah
1 / 5 (2) Mar 07, 2012
I don't consider a rock a tool. Now a bear using a Sawzall (cordless of course) or maybe a 3 axis laser level would be newsworthy.
nuge
5 / 5 (1) Mar 07, 2012
So...how smart is the average bear?
mrtea
not rated yet Mar 08, 2012
What is considered "science" didn't really develop until relatively recently, yet medicines were prepared, buidlings built, items made using previously anecdotal advice, and much of that anecdotal information came to be incorporated in "science" but only after receiving the imprimatur of the field.


I think you are confusing technology with science. Making things work effectively may come through trial and error over long periods (as in evolution). Science is a formal method, for better or worse.
RobertKarlStonjek
4.2 / 5 (5) Mar 08, 2012
Forget about the barnacles, explain why the pictured bear is talking on a white cell phone...
drel
5 / 5 (2) Mar 08, 2012
Forget about the barnacles, explain why the pictured bear is talking on a white cell phone...

...because he forgot and left his black one at home, still plugged into the charger?
Au-Pu
1 / 5 (1) Mar 10, 2012
Humans are over egotistic. We are technologically advanced but remain socially not far from the savagery of our primitive ancestors.
We like to see ourselves, because of our technology as far superior to all other animals.
I have observed the exercise of intelligence and social order in accomplishing a task and then feeding in turn demonstrated by a group of Ravens.
Yet their brain is probably about half the size of my thumb, or possibly even smaller.
Brain size clearly isn't the be all to end all that we like to see it as.
We humans are a semi-civilised, technically advanced animal with no better long term planning than most other species.
seb
not rated yet Mar 11, 2012
They're not known for being particularly clever, but just insanely aggressive.


Uh? Are we still talking about bears, or the average human? :D

Mastoras
not rated yet Mar 11, 2012
We humans are a semi-civilised, technically advanced animal with no better long term planning than most other species.


Um, no, not really. We have long and short memory, we may infere, imagine and plan, draw conclusions, and other aspects that I can't describe as good as a psychologist would do.
But I think what you are saying confuses social and moral behavior with intelligence. I humbly suggests that, beneath this, we may detect a not too deep social and/or political perception.
-.
Callippo
not rated yet Mar 11, 2012
With respect to aether model of reality the people are as ignorant as every cow at the meadows. It can see the grass, it can swallow the grass, but it doesn't realize it's a grass. The dogs can howl at moon, they can even see all the stars on the sky a way better then we do - but they don't realize them. If you cannot imagine, how the animals could perceive the hidden reality, which is quite obvious for us, just try to think about dense aether model.