Even well fed Andean bears creatively try to get the goodies

Bears are often labelled intelligent animals, although there have not been many studies to evaluate their cognitive abilities and there are different aspects to what we generally call intelligence. One assessment of intelligence is whether, or how, animals solve new challenges. Some species of animals are really good at this and sometimes they even use tools.

Several years ago, I discovered an interesting report from 1974 about a young Andean bear female at Zoo Basel (Switzerland) using a stick to obtain food from trees growing alongside her habitat. I was skeptical until the photos convinced me that she was using a tool! A few reports of other bears under human care describe them also using tools, such as polar bears throwing objects, or brown bears using tools to obtain food in controlled experiments.

However, perhaps because it’s hard to often observe wild bears, I’ve only found one report of a wild bear using a tool - a wild brown bear on the coast of SE Alaska used a barnacle-encrusted rock to groom itself.

We don’t know whether wild Andean bears can or will use tools to obtain food. To do so they have been documented traveling long distances, climbing steep slopes, and expending a lot of time and energy processing foods. Sometimes those foraging activities create problems for their conservation, such as when bears harvest someone’s corn or hunt someone’s cow. In those and other foraging activities, the bears possess the physical abilities, structures, and behaviors needed to obtain food.

Therefore, it’s hard to imagine how manipulating a stick or another simple tool would be useful to them. They do, however, frequently investigate and manipulate new objects in their environment, such as the trail cameras we use to study them.

Since reading about the stick-swinging Swiss bear, I have been fortunate to see tools being used by both of the adult Andean bears that now live in the San Diego Zoo. When I saw these bears in action, I had to stop and stare even though I frequently observe them.

Fortunately, I was able to use my phone to record videos of the male bear, Turbo, using a hard surface to try and access the marrow inside a beef bone, and the female bear, Alba, using a stick to try and dislodge some overhanging leaves. Although Alba stood on top of a wooden climbing structure when she swung her stick, she looked a lot like the 1974 photos from Zoo Basel!