Bears Can "Count"

They can discriminate between groups of dots on a touchscreen.

Posted Jun 18, 2012

Just this morning as I was walking up the road to my house I spied on a huge male black bear taking a casual morning stroll. He was about 25 feet away, looked at me, and continued walking but I hurried home nonetheless. I love living among different animals and give them their space because I'm the intruder. So, when I got home and saw a recent essay about the numerical abilities of bears, I thought this was a wonderful coincidence, and that the results of a recent study were well worth sharing.

A few months ago I wrote about the mathematical abilities of pigeons and suggested that while the new results that these birds can form abstract rules about numbers were very interesting they were not all that surprising given what we know about the behavior of wild birds.

Now we know that black bears can "count" and they join a large group of animals who have what researchers call numerical competency. Of the three bears trained to discriminate groups of dots on a touchscreen, "two bears learned to pick the group with fewer dots, while the third learned to choose the group with more dots."

Some of the highlights of this study include:

► "This is the first demonstration of quantity estimation in bears. ► A nonsocial species can enumerate moving stimuli and subsets of stimuli. ► Bears predominantly appeared to use area but could also use number as a cue. ► Bears showed effects of ratio and difference comparable to those of primates. ► Bears performed ‘better’ when choosing ‘larger’ relative to ‘smaller’ amounts"

The abstract of the original research report can be seen here. A snippet from the abstract reads as follows. "Studies of bear cognition are notably missing from the comparative record despite bears' large relative brain size and interesting status as generalist carnivores facing complex foraging challenges, but lacking complex social structures. We investigated the numerical abilities of three American black bears, Ursus Americanus, by presenting discrimination tasks on a touch-screen computer. ... All of the bears were above chance on trials of both types with static dots. Despite encountering greater difficulty with dots that moved within the arrays, one bear was able to discriminate numerically larger arrays of moving dots, and a subset of moving dots from within the larger array, even when area and number were incongruent. Thus, although the bears used area as a cue to guide their responses, they were also able to use number as a cue. The pattern of performance was similar to that found previously with monkeys, and suggests that bears may also show other forms of sophisticated quantitative abilities."

Stay tuned for more on the fascinating cognitive abilities of nonhuman animals.