World's smallest bears' facial expressions throw doubt on human superiority

World's smallest bears' facial expressions throw doubt on human superiority
Mature female sun bear in Malaysia. Credit: Daniela Hartmann

The world's smallest bears can exactly mimic another bear's facial expressions, casting doubt on humans and other primates' supremacy at this subtle form of communication.

It is the first time such exact facial mimicry has been seen outside of humans and gorillas.

The research, by Dr. Marina Davila-Ross and Ph.D. candidate Derry Taylor, both at the University of Portsmouth, is published in Scientific Reports.

The researchers studied sun bears—a solitary species in the wild, but also surprisingly playful—for more than two years.

They found bears can use to communicate with others in a similar way to humans and apes, strongly suggesting other mammals might also be masters of this complex and, in addition, have a degree of social sensitivity.

Dr. Davila-Ross said: "Mimicking the facial expressions of others in exact ways is one of the pillars of human communication. Other primates and dogs are known to mimic each other, but only great apes and humans, and now sun bears, were previously known to show such complexity in their facial mimicry.

"Because sun bears appear to have facial communication of such complexity and because they have no special evolutionary link to humans like monkeys are apes, nor are they domesticated animals like dogs, we are confident that this more advanced form of mimicry is present in various other species. This, however, needs to be further investigated.

"What's most surprising is the sun bear is not a social animal. In the wild, it's a relatively solitary animal, so this suggests the ability to communicate via complex facial expressions could be a pervasive trait in mammals, allowing them to navigate their societies."

Facial mimicry is when an animal responds to another's facial expression with the same or similar expression. Mr Taylor coded the facial expressions of 22 sun bears in spontaneous social play sessions.

The bears, aged 2-12, were housed in Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre in Malaysia in which enclosures were large enough to allow bears to choose whether to interact or not.

Despite the bears' preference in the wild for a solitary life, the bears in this study took part in hundreds of play bouts, with more than twice as many gentle play sessions compared to rough play.

During these encounters, the research team coded two distinct expressions—one involving a display of the upper incisor teeth, and one without.

The bears were most likely to show precise facial mimicry during gentle play.

Mr Taylor said such subtle mimicking could be to help two bears signal that they are ready to play more roughly, or to strengthen social bonds.

He said: "It is widely believed that we only find complex forms of communication in species with complex social systems. As sun bears are a largely solitary species, our study of their facial communication questions this belief, because it shows a complex form of facial that until now was known only in more social species.

"Sun bears are an elusive species in the wild and so very little is known about them. We know they live in , eat almost everything, and that outside of the mating season adults have little to do with one another.

"That's what makes these results so fascinating—they are a non-social who when face to face can communicate subtly and precisely."

Sun bears, also known as honey bears, stand at 120-150 cm tall and weigh up to 80kg. They are endangered and live in the tropical forests of south-east Asia.

Social sophistication aside, sun bear numbers are dwindling due to deforestation, poaching and being killed by farmers for eating crops. Increasingly, new mother bears are killed so their cub can be taken and raised as a pet or kept in captivity as 'bile bears' where their bile is harvested for use in some Chinese medicines.

The field research was funded by the Royal Society and the Leakey Foundation.

Previous research at the University of Portsmouth showed dogs alter their facial expressions if they know someone is looking at them.

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More information: Facial Complexity in Sun Bears: Exact Facial Mimicry and Social Sensitivity, Scientific Reports (2019). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-019-39932-6 ,
Journal information: Scientific Reports

Citation: World's smallest bears' facial expressions throw doubt on human superiority (2019, March 21) retrieved 18 August 2019 from
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Mar 21, 2019
"...bears' facial expressions throw doubt on human superiority" - Really? How many world changing inventions do bears have? The only bears I could check the patent office on were Yogi and Smoky. Neither one has a patent listed. Successful manned voyages from Earth to the moon. Humans 6, Bears 0. I do understand that bears are much better at climbing trees than humans. It's not fair they have such big sharp claws!

Sorry, Just having a little fun with the headline.

Mar 21, 2019
I remember when bears invented the iPhone, and Steve Jobs stole their credit, and when they flew to the moon, and those pesky astronauts hogged all the glory.
The best though, was when that half-man, half-bear, half-pig beast warned us all about global warming and AlGore made that movie that really pulled the rug out from under ManBearPig.

Mar 21, 2019
Cats are remarkably expressive to someone who knows them well. But not so much facially; they use cues visible at longer distances, using their tails and body language, as well as their ears and their back posture. This type of somatic signalling is pervasive among mammals; mice who are erect with their front paws together are signalling aggression, for example.

I am not astonished these bears have somatic signals and don't consider it particularly unusual in an animal with a large head carried well forward uses facial signals.

And when a rhinoceros in a wild animal park approaches the side of the truck I'm riding in and opens its mouth, I throw in a chunk of apple the keepers gave me. I sure didn't need written instructions.

Mar 21, 2019
Some clickbait relies on asininity to work. Like this one. OK, I'll play. Eagles see better and can fly, so they're superior to humans, dogs have better ears, cats see in the dark, horses run faster, no one has found a shark dead of old age...we have to build telescopes and airplanes and microphones and flashlights and cars, and we still may not live as long as sharks. It's a miracle we've survived natural selection...oh wait, we found a workaround for that. Maybe the article acknowledges that, but I don't care; since I don't like being manipulated by smartass editors I won't read it.

Mar 21, 2019
Papa bear was found dejected and drunk from eating fermenting rotten apples. When asked why. He responded -- It's unbearable when her eyes say yes but the rest of her face say no.

Mar 21, 2019
I'm astonished that Humans were smart enough to learn long-distance signalling from herding dogs.

However that seems to be about the limit of Human learning capacity.
Cause, as often & patiently dogs try to teach their humans to pick up their crap?
The human just stands there looking away & finally rushes off.

Mar 22, 2019
Precisely, strategerist and dkjack. These facial expressions are likely just the tip of the iceberg. Continued bear research will probably reveal their superiority to Rachmaninoff concertos, political debate, Dostoyevsky novels, space probes to Pluto, and stem cell research.

Mar 22, 2019
I'd say bears are more intelligent than Dr. Marina Davila-Ross and Ph.D. candidate Derry Taylor but not so much for the rest of us.

Mar 22, 2019
Humans are not "superior". The only thing about us that is "superior" is our ability to think we are "superior" and our ability to destroy huge sections of the environment with wanton abandon to suit our needs. Cell phones, computer, cars, etc. are not signs of intelligence, rather convenience. If we were truly intelligent, we as a species would realize 1) we are not the center of the universe, just an infinitesimally small part of it, 2) we are living in the Garden of Eden and every life in it is not ours to take or manipulate, and 3) intelligence has nothing to do with things and everything to do with the heart and the spirit.

Mar 22, 2019
calling ourselves "Homo Sapient is rather a reach even for our bloated egos.

I opinionate that defining ourselves as
Homo Anthropophagus
would be a much more accurate classification.

Mar 23, 2019
It is really humorous that comments are missing the point and confirming that they think humans have unique traits despite the evidence! Either by implying these types of finds are not an advance by injecting irrelevant chaff on technology and what not, or by implying humans are the only invading species there is.

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