Grizzly bears, perhaps North America’s most feared predators, are generally known for their great size and strength. Scientists say there is also a cunning brain behind all that brawn, and researchers at Washington State University (WSU) want to find out whether brown bears can use tools.

“While it’s generally accepted that grizzly bears are intelligent creatures, until now no scientific research had been conducted on their problem-solving skills,” WSU biologist Lynne Nelson said in a press release.

Bears’ large brains and complex social structures can be compared to those of higher primates. Yet Nelson says that no study has ever explored the animal’s tool-using abilities. In the wild bears will use a variety of tools, such as trees and branches, for scratching and personal hygiene. But what about something more complicated? Nelson told The Yakima Herald that she first got the idea for the study after reading the results of another report in a peer-reviewed journal.

“The bear [in that study] 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?’

So Nelson decided to set up something a little more complicated. At a controlled facility at WSU, Nelson and her team tested a group of three male and five female grizzlies for their tool-using abilities. The experiment was simple enough: hang a donut in the bears’ play area just too high for the animals to reach, and put a sawed-off tree stump under it. Of course, it was no obstacle for the bears to stand on the stump and retrieve the tasty donut. But then researchers moved the stump a short distance away and turned it on its side. In this phase, bears had to roll the heavy stump under the donut and then turn it over before using it as a stool.

It’s not the most sophisticated test of tool use, but Nelson said that learning how to manipulate an inanimate object in a multi-step process is more complicated than it sounds. Only one of the female grizzlies has managed to master the technique, although the others are learning.

“If grizzly bears are capable of using tools to interact with their environment, that’s important for us to know because it provides a fuller picture of how they think,” said WSU veterinary student Alex Waroff. “By better understanding their cognitive abilities, we can help reduce encounters that can turn deadly for bears and humans alike.”

It may also give wildlife managers more information on how bears deal with changing habitat and declining food sources. Nelso expects to continue her study through the fall, when more complicated tests may be introduced.

Image courtesy Linda Weiford/WSU

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