Most people readily accept that bears are smart animals. In fact, most wildlife biologists regard bears as some of the most intelligent land mammals on Earth; and yet, there's very little formal research to support what everyone pretty much accepts as true. Now, in the first study of its kind, researchers Jennifer Vonk and Michael J. Beran have demonstrated that American black bears can differentiate between groups of dots on a touchscreen computer, based on the number of dots each group contains.
The experiment was relatively straightforward. Bears were presented with two arrays of dots. The researchers trained two bears to choose the smaller of two arrays, and a third bear to select the larger array.
"On some trials, the relative number of dots was congruent with the relative total area of the two arrays," write the researchers in the latest issue of Animal Behaviour. "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." In other words, the bears were making their selections based on the actual number of dots, not the area the dots appeared to occupy. The researchers also found that the bear trained to pick out the larger array performed better when presented with arrays of moving dots.
So can the bears count? The title of the paper describing the researchers' findings suggests as much, though the fact that the word count is contained in quotes nods at the fact that "quantity estimation" is perhaps a better description of the bears' abilities. That's not to say they aren't intelligent — the bears' performance was on par with that of primates in previous studies. If investigations into bear cognition continue, these massive mammals could turn out to be intelligent, in ways we'd never realized. [Animal Behaviour]