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Bears Can Count: Study June 22, 2012
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Top: Black bear viewing computer screen during counting experiment. Bottom: samples of number arrays used in the animal behavior and cognition research.
Researchers have found that American black bears have the ability to “do something analogous to counting,” by conducting experiments in which the animals make choices using computer screens.

Writing in the journal Animal Behavior, a team from Michigan’s Oakland University says it found the animals are able to differentiate between the number of dots shown to them on a screen.

“People don’t generally understand them to be as intelligent as they probably are,” said assistant professor Jennifer Vonk, who led the study.

By presenting the bears with two sets of dots, they were given food if they chose the correct higher or lower number assigned in the test.

The team varied the pattern of dots and the background to make sure the ursine number crunchers weren’t merely selecting patterns rather than the number of dots.

“I think we can't really say that they’re absolutely counting at this point but it does look like they're attending to the number of items and not just the area,” said Vonk.

Bears have the largest relative brain size of any carnivore, and researchers are just beginning to test the extent of their perceptions and their understanding of abstract concepts.

Photo: Jennifer Vonk