Research shows black bears can count

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Black Bear

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Remember the bear family in that Goldilocks fairy tale we all loved? We all liked to believe those bears lived the life of regular humans — eating home-cooked porridge meals, sleeping in regular beds, and leaving the home for short family road trips.

But there’s a new study out there that makes it kind of fun to believe that bears really do have some “human” characteristics. Apparently, black bears can count?

In experiments, captive bears showed that they could perform numerical tasks, including distinguishing the number of dots on an image.

Researchers involved in the study say that even though bears have the largest relative brain size of any carnivore (still not as big as primates), surprisingly little research has been done on their cognitive abilities.

National Geographic spoke to the the study’s co-author Jennifer Vonk, via email. She told the magazine that the new data suggests, for the first time, that “bears and other animals that have been neglected by cognitive scientists … may show abilities similar to species more like humans.” Vonk is a comparative psychologist at the University of Oakland in Rochester, Michigan.

National Geographic outlines the study on its website:

For the experiment, three black bears in their enclosure in Alabama’s Mobile Zoo were given the opportunity to approach a touch-screen computer on a rolling cart. Vonk says that the large carnivores, which are generally “motivated to work for food,” proved willing participants.

According to the study, when a bear walked up to the computer, the screen flashed two images. For instance, a set of large dots and a set of small dots, which were both randomly colored black or red. Each bear was already trained to touch the computer with its nose or paw, and would do this to choose an image.

If the bear touched the “correct” category—randomly determined by the scientists—the computer beeped melodically and the animal got a food reward. But if the bear touched the incorrect category, the computer buzzed and the next pair of images was shown.

To show if the bear had learned what image was correct (say, a high or low number of dots), the scientists showed them a new set of images that were of the same type as the previous ones.

The results showed all the bears were able to choose the correct image that got them food. It set the stage to look closer at their ability to “count.”

This reportedly lead the way to the “Counting Bear”:

A further experiment discovered that one bear, named Brutus, could also discriminate numbers.

Brutus was shown two images, one with a set of large dots and another with a set of small dots.

This was followed by another two images, in each of which the dots were moving and placed on a background of a different size than the previous images.

National Geographic quotes Vonk: The bear still chose the correct image despite these “conflicting cues,” suggesting he can “count” the dots to distinguish the one to get him a treat.

Even so, “it’s too early to call it counting per se,” she noted.

The magazine spoke to Dave Garshelis. He was not involved in the study, but serves as bear project leader at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. He said the bears may have found it relatively easy to respond to the color of the dots because they resemble berries. Berries being one of the black bear’s main food sources. For example, black bears are able to discern the preferred ripe blackberries, which are black, from unripe blackberries, which are red.

He also told National Geographic that the experiment was geared toward visual acuity. This is reportedly the most comfortable sense for humans, but not so much for bears — whose sense of smell is a thousand times greater than a person’s.

In the experiment, “you’ve actually stripped them of their main sense that they make decisions by, which is their sense of smell,” he said.

Garshelis suspects the bears would have performed even better on the tests if there’d been smells emanating from the screen.

The study was published in the June edition of the journal, Animal Behaviour.

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