Rock Doc column: Smarter than your average bear

By E. Kirsten Peters, College of Agricultural, Human & Natural Resource Sciences

peters-e-k-2010-80PULLMAN, Wash. – Alex Waroff had a fantastic summer job. The veterinary student at Washington State University worked with faculty members as they tested just how clever grizzly bears are. What’s at issue is the use of tools.

“Besides primates, scientists know that certain birds, dolphins, elephants and some other animals use tools,” Waroff told me. “Tool use might seem to be more common in social creatures. Bears are a little hard to categorize in that regard because they live with their mother when young, then are solitary as adults.”

O. Lynne Nelson of WSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine has been working with Waroff with bears living in a facility at the edge of the university campus. Some of the bears were born in captivity while others were brought in from the wild where they had become problem bears and were in danger of being destroyed.

“The idea of tool use is that an animal utilizes an object and manipulates it to achieve a goal,” Nelson said. “If a bear picks up a box and puts it down where the bear can stand on it and reach something, that’s tool use.”

Waroff and company have been testing eight bears, one by one, to see whether a glazed donut reward will inspire the bruins to use tools. This summer the researchers have been suspending a donut in a play area. In the large pen are such things as sawed-off tree stumps and boxes. The researchers videotaped what each bear did as it tried to reach the donut.

“First we had bears learn to stand on a stump that was under the donut, allowing them to reach the food,” Waroff said. “Then the next step was that they had to move the stump to place it under the donut.”

All but two of the bears pretty quickly picked up on moving the stump to where it was needed.

“Then we had a big box, too, and a different stump,” Waroff said. “Some bears stacked them when the donut was suspended at high levels.”

A 9-year-old female named Kio has gone to the head of her class in the experiments.

“Bears can live to be 30 or 40 years old,” Waroff said. “So Kio is still relatively young.”

The bears in the WSU experiments seem to enjoy the puzzles that have been set for them this summer.

“They are excited to do the trials,” Waroff said. “They watch us as we set things up and suspend the donut.”

Waroff and Nelson view the experiments as good enrichment for the bruins.

“With research, getting findings whatever they may be is the real goal,” Waroff said. “But it’s been interesting documenting tool use.”


Dr. E. Kirsten Peters was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard Universities. This column is provided as a service of the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University. See more columns or listen to the Rock Doc’s broadcasts of them at