Bears are known for their strength, solitude, and adaptability, but recent research has uncovered a surprising dimension to their capabilities: tool use, according to reporting done by Newsweek.
One of the most remarkable findings in this regard is a polar bear using a block of ice to hunt seals—an action that typically remains the domain of animals considered among the most intelligent.
While this discovery may prompt us to reevaluate our understanding of bear intelligence, it also highlights the complexity of assessing intelligence across different species.
According to Chris Newman, an ecology researcher at the University of Oxford’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, animal intelligence can be broadly categorized into two types: practical and social intelligence.
Socially intelligent animals often live in groups and have a complex understanding of the social dynamics within their community. These creatures typically cooperate and share food resources, an ability that is closely linked to their diet and social structure.
On the other hand, practical intelligence involves the dexterity and ability to manipulate the environment. Newman notes that climbing species, with their unique anatomy and grasping limbs, often display practical intelligence.
Primates, renowned for their problem-solving abilities and tool use, are excellent examples of animals possessing both practical and social intelligence.
However, bears challenge the conventional wisdom about animal intelligence. These solitary creatures primarily fall into the category of practical intelligence, relying on their physical abilities and problem-solving skills rather than social collaboration. They exhibit impressive dexterity and are capable of manipulating objects. Bears, especially their recent ancestors like polar bears, can climb and stand upright on their hind legs, enabling them to interact with their environment distinctively.
One of the key traits that sets bears apart is their extraordinary olfactory abilities. They can detect scents from great distances. When combined with their immense strength, these olfactory skills make bears formidable in finding and acquiring food, even leading to anecdotes of bears breaking into cars in search of a meal.
Jennifer Vonk, a comparative psychologist at Oakland University, has conducted experiments that reveal further insights into bear intelligence. Her research found that black bears are capable of learning complex concepts, such as distinguishing between primates and non-primates or animals and landscapes. Additionally, they can link the number of objects seen in an image to real-life quantities, demonstrating an ability to understand numerical concepts.
However, the notion of comparing intelligence across species remains a complex and contentious issue. Ivo Jacobs, a researcher in cognitive zoology at Lund University, cautions against using the term “intelligence” in a way that implies human-centric standardized tests. Animals have evolved to excel in their unique environments, which necessitates different problem-solving skills. This diversity makes it difficult to rank species based on intelligence.
It’s essential to recognize that intelligence is not a one-size-fits-all concept, and it’s highly influenced by an animal’s natural habitat and survival needs. While tool use is often associated with intelligence, bears’ use of tools, while fascinating, doesn’t necessarily make them geniuses. Jacobs suggests that the cognitive aspects of tool use in bears need further study to reach solid conclusions about their intelligence.
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This article by Trinity Sparke was first published by One Green Planet on 12 October 2023. Image Credit :Marek R. Swadzba/Shutterstock.