Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Scientists Discover Bears Can Count

Black bear. Photo courtesy: dalliedee/CC BY 2.0

In yet another blog on one of my favourite subjects, animal intelligence - we now discover that bears are smarter than we previously gave them credit for being. When are we going to wake up and realize that just because we lack the skills to communicate with the animals this does not mean that they are not intelligent?

Further, rather fascinating, illustration that non-human animals can be far more than intelligent than they are generally given credit for: New research in Animal Behaviour shows that American black bears have at least rudimentary counting ability, demonstrating performance "similar to that found previously with monkeys," which "suggests that bears may also show other forms of sophisticated quantitative abilities."

To determine this, the scientists put bears through number-based tests on a touch-screen computer, which rewarded them for correct answers. BBC Nature describes the tests:
They touched the screen to select one or other of the arrays, and were given food if they got the answer right. One bear was rewarded for touching the screen with a greater number dots, and for the other two bears, a correct answer was an array with a fewer number of dots. The team wanted to ensure that the animals were not merely estimating magnitude, a skill that has been shown by many animals.
Sometimes the dots were moving and sometimes not, but, "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 scientists say that this is the first time a species that has not evolved to live socially has demonstrated the ability to individuate items.

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