Scientists use touch-screen computers to catch bears ‘counting’

By Stephen C. Webster
Monday, June 18, 2012 10:21 EDT
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A North American black bear. Photo: Shutterstock.com, all rights reserved.
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It appears that U.S. political pundit Stephen Colbert was right to be worried about the rising threat posed by your run-of-the-mill bears: As it turns out, they’re much smarter than previously thought.

A study published earlier this month in the scientific journal Animal Behaviour revealed, for the first time ever, that North American black bears have the ability to count objects and may even exhibit intelligence on the level of primates.

By using food rewards that correlated with groupings of dots displayed on a touch screen computer, scientists were able to get the bears to decide whether they wanted less food or more.

“We’re really trying to differentiate between the ability to perceptually discriminate amount from actually quantifying a number of items,” Dr. Jennifer Vonk, the lead researcher at Oakland University, told the BBC.

By changing up the patterns of the dots and the area they appeared, Vonk said she was able to catch the bears doing “something analogous to counting” in making their selections, which appeared to hinge upon the number of dots and not just similarities to other patterns.

“I’ve been working for a while with these bears… but simultaneously I was working with a chimpanzee,” she reportedly said. “I find that their abilities so far in terms of categorisation and forming more abstract concepts seem quite comparable.”

Photo: Shutterstock.com, all rights reserved.

Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster is the senior editor of Raw Story, and is based out of Austin, Texas. He previously worked as the associate editor of The Lone Star Iconoclast in Crawford, Texas, where he covered state politics and the peace movement’s resurgence at the start of the Iraq war. Webster has also contributed to publications such as True/Slant, Austin Monthly, The Dallas Business Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Weekly, The News Connection and others. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenCWebster.
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