Are Grizzly Bears Tool Users? A Sample of One Suggests the Possibility

Are Grizzly Bears Tool Users? A Sample of One Suggests the Possibility

Tool use is usually interpreted as a sign of sophisticated brain processing and/or social organization. With the exception of primates, there are not many mammals that use tools (e.g., sea otters use rocks to smash open clams, dolphins use sponges on their snot to protect it while seeking out food on the sea floor, elephants use branches to swat insects, and humpback whales use bubble curtains to trap schools of fish. Now, maybe, to this exclusive list might be added the grizzly bear.

A researcher studying grizzly bears in Glacier Bay National Park happened to observe a single bear remove a rock from the edge of the shallow bay and rub it against its muzzle and face for about a minute; this was after picking up several rocks and discarding them. Then it (sex unknown) picked up another rock and rubbed it against its muzzle, face, and neck. Upon reviewing his photographs, the researcher noted that the rocks used for these activities were encrusted with barnacles. The researcher concluded the bear was using a comb of sorts. By picking up and rejecting several rocks before finding what it ultimately used, it would appear some analytical assessment was made of the rocks and their utility.

At this point, there is a sample of one. Other tool-using mammals are social animals, which means that one animal's "invention" can be and is copied by others. So, the question arises, are grizzly bears social animals in this sense of the term? It could be that this one bear is truly unique, or that it is the first hint that bears are more socialable (in the technical sense) than previous believed.

The report can be found at: http://www.springerlink.com/content/amj52437j51l2501/.

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