full story, photos, comments:
moving stumps to reach doughnut hanging out of reach
By Shannon Quinn, The Associated Press
Aug 22, 2014
Three-year-old grizzly bear Roan has just figured out that he can move the
stump in order to stand upon it and grab a doughnut hanging out of reach during
a study by Washington State University researchers. (Washington State
It may no longer be good enough to hang your food in a tree to keep it away from
bears when you go camping, according to a first-of-its-kind study at the
Washington State University Bear Research Education and Conservation Center.
Some -- but not all -- grizzlies can use primitive tools to thwart your efforts,
veterinary student Alex Waroff found this summer in an experiment assisted by
Charlie Robbins, WSU bear centre director, and O. Lynne Nelson, assistant
director and professor of cardiology at WSU's Veterinary Teaching Hospital.
"The bear was observed to pick up a rock or shell and use it to scratch his
face," Nelson said. "Those of us who work with bears read the report and
essentially said, 'Really? Is that the best you have?' "Nelson said the idea for
the study came from a report in a peer-reviewed journal of "first tool use" by a
brown bear in Alaska.
Nelson said she, and others who work with bears, see evidence of bears
manipulating objects for a specific goal all the time -- the definition of tool
"Of course, all of these observations are anecdote," she said. "So we decided to
put this problem-solving skill to standardized research protocol."
The study's participants are eight grizzly bears -- five males and three females
-- who are challenged to get their paws on a glazed doughnut hung out of reach in
their play area on the WSU campus.
Using her paws, nine-year-old Kio flips a plastic box to position it under
the hanging doughnuts to use as a footstool. She has started selecting the box
over the tree stump, presumably because it is easier to manipulate. (Linda
Weiford/Washington State University News)
So far, researchers have identified one bear -- a nine-year-old female -- who has
become the star of the show.
Kio, who was born in the centre in 2005, has sailed through the tasks, while
others are still discovering the basics.
"She manipulates an inanimate object in several steps to help her achieve a
goal, which in this case is to obtain food. This fits the definition of tool
use," Nelson said.
She said the value in this study will be to assist professionals like wildlife
managers to address bear-related problems and zookeepers to keep their captive
wards mentally and physically stimulated.
"This study helps us understand something about the evolution of problem solving
in bears and how it compares to other species, including humans. It helps us to
understand the way bears think and perhaps how we might anticipate and alter our
practices in backcountry places and campgrounds," Nelson said.
She said it also shows how a species may adapt to a changing environment.
"Being able to problem solve allows for a species to 'think outside the box' so
to speak. This may be important if habitat and food resources change."
Nelson said she and the other researchers have plans to continue with other
bear-related studies after this one is completed in the fall.
"People often don't like to see us feeding the bears sweets such as doughnuts,"
she said. "I really appreciate that and I am glad that people care. We do give
sweets as special treats, but not as a major part of their diet."
Researchers place a sawed-off tree stump below the hanging treat to see if
the animals will stand on it to reach the object of their desire. Once they do,
the stump is turned on its side and moved away from the treat. Researchers
observe whether the bears will move it back under the doughnut.