Big teeth, long claws, massive muscles, amazing sensory modalities - the grizzly has many impressive corporeal attributes. But not only does the great bear have an impressive set of physical tools, it is also one of the most intelligent animals on the planet. Naturalist, John M. Hornaday (1930) says the following about the grizzly:
“The bear’s ingenuity, his curiosity, and his enjoyment of recreation are closely connected. They are the signs of his intelligence. The bear shows his sagacity in many ways; he is not an idler, and is always busy learning something. Even though he does not venture far from his known domain and is cautious in his actions, he is a mental adventurer, constantly assimilating new impressions and ideas. He is not a gregarious animal, and when he meets a new situation, he has to reason it out for himself. Any unusual occurrence arouses his curiosity, and he usually investigates in an intelligent manner. The grizzly has a good sense of humor, of a mischievous type.”
In regard to the mind of the grizzly, Hornaday, director of the New York Zoological Park wrote of the ursids:
“Considered as a group, the bears of the world are supremely interesting animals. In fact, no group surpasses them save the Order Primates, and it requires the enrollment of all the apes, baboons and monkey’s to accomplish this. From sunrise to sunset a bear is an animal of original thought and vigorous enterprise.”
Studies conducted on the "academic" abilities of bears have shown that they can learn as fast as the great apes. They have amazing spatial memory. Anyone that has lived in bear country knows how good their memory is when it comes to relocating a food source. One encounter with an a trash can that contains edible-refuse will almost certainly bring the bear back to that very spot (sometimes again, again and again). Gunter et al (2004) said in their study on problem bears “Once a bear successfully obtains food reward at a particular location, the site is usually periodically re-checked for more food.” Problem bears that are relocated, typically find their way back to the location where easily accessed morsels were originally found. These individuals are often referred to as “boomerang bears” and they have been known to revisit an inappropriate food source even after having been moved over 100 miles from it!
The video below shows just how smart a young grizzly can be! What it documents is a three-year old bear placing our group of photographers between itself and a large male (Snaggletooth – I will introduce him to you in detail in a future post). The young bear is Helga, one of the “H-twins” (her sister is Hannah - both were named by longtime bear enthusiast, wildlife photographer and Katmai visitor, Carol Bailey). While it may seem counterintuitive, large males are often more reluctant to approach human groups than are younger bears or adult females. (It turns out that Snaggletooth is a very human-habituated bear and so he really does not mind people.) Females and subadults of both sexes may hang out near groups of observers because they have learned that the potentially dangerous males are less likely to bother them there. In this case, Helga is using our group as a shield, just in case the big bad boar decides to harass or even attempt to eat her! She eventually moves off behind us and away from Snaggletooth. In my next bear post, we will look at cub caching, a truly amazing phenomenon that I have been able to witness at Katmai.