Arctic Bears
Bear Intelligence

Held in awe by Native American Indians, classic characters in folklore, feared, trapped, hunted, displayed in zoos and made to perform in circuses, the bear has long had a complicated relationship with humans. The bear intimidates with its size and strength, but it may be the bear’s undeniable intelligence that causes us to revere the creature even as we fear him.

Considered by many wildlife biologists to be one of the most intelligent land animals of North America, bears possess the largest and most convoluted brains relative to their size of any land mammal. In the animal kingdom, their intelligence compares with that of higher primates. As highly evolved social animals, bears form hierarchies and have structured relationships with each other, sometimes even sharing resources. In fact, the polar bear, typically thought of as solitary, actually lives within a community of other polar bears and never loses track of other members.

We’ve witnessed them performing complex tasks — a sign of an ability to learn and process information. We’ve seen circus bears balance on balls, ride vehicles or roller skate, and play sports and musical instruments. Zookeepers and animal trainers consider bears to be smarter than dogs.

The bear’s cunning is legendary when it comes to guarding itself against danger from hunters and poachers. The animal’s uncanny ability to evade human predators during hunting season could almost be considered forethought. Some researchers believe that grizzlies possess self-awareness, as there have been accounts of grizzly bears covering their tracks or concealing themselves from hunters with rocks and trees.

Beyond this ursine wiliness, we find further proofs of their intelligence in their habits. Like humans, bears are omnivores. It’s well known that omnivores are often substantially smarter than more specialized feeders. Following a varied diet means that bears have to remember a great deal of information about food sources — where to find which foods and when. A grizzly’s memory is so sharp that he can remember where they encountered a certain food ten or more years earlier. And bears remember familiar animals for years, recognizing them and identifying their social status from a distance as far as 2,000 feet away.

It helps that bears are creatures of detail. They take constant inventory of their surroundings, allowing them to compile a detailed map of their territories, complete with information on where to find their preferred foods and when they can obtain them. The polar bear lives in a world of an ever-changing landscape. Hunting and surviving within an ice relief below water and on the surface demands a sharp memory.

To learn survival skills from their mother, cubs spend several years with her. She educates them about what plants are good to eat and where to find them. By the time a juvenile bear leaves its mother, it knows what plant foods are available at each time of the season, and what habitats are likely to have those foods over a very large area. That knowledge serves them well as they move into new areas, learning and remembering where new food sources are found in a new environment. This knowledge is also critical to finding food when food sources change drastically from year to year depending upon weather and climate.

In our own encounters with wild bears, we know that a bear’s resourcefulness seems to know no limits. Bears have long been engaged in a battle to figure out ways in which to benefit from living in close proximity with us. They are constantly devising new ways to get at garbage, empty birdfeeders, devour fruits from orchards and farms, clear out beehives, and open metal and glass cars to get to food that their keen sense of smell draws them to. The occurrence of polar bears scavenging in town dumps in Manitoba is on the rise. And both grizzly bears and polar bears have become more popular visitors of the dump in the North Slope town of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. Grizzly bears in national parks have become so adept at getting into garbage bins and camper trash, that new models of supposedly “bear proof” containers are rolled out each season. New models are “market tested” with grizzlies who had to be removed from the wild because they were too comfortable around humans.

As highly intelligent and adaptable as bears are, they continue to suffer an unfortunate fate at our hands. Many bears are needlessly captured and shot because of human fear and carelessness. “Nuisance” bears, or bears that raid garbage or property, are only a nuisance when humans fail to take precautions that can keep the bears away. As humans move into territories that traditionally belong to the bears, encounters between the two will become more common. As intelligent as bears are, humans are the more advanced and intelligent species. It is our responsibility, then, to ensure that these creatures live safely within both of our worlds.

  • Consuelo larrabee

    The Grizzly Wolf Discovery Center in Ennis MT near the west entrance to Yellowstone has trash can try-out days. New models are introduced to their 3rd strike garbage bears. It is awesome to see how quickly the bears can eliminate a poorly designed receptacle & there is a display of “failed” models at the exit. On the other hand, I watched a bear try for an hour to open a small suitcase sized metal box designed for campers’ food. He jumped on it. He picked it up & dropped it. He put it in the pond & pushed it around w/his snout. He tried to get his claws under the top on all 4 sides. (Peanut butter & fish must be a great incentive!) If a bear cannot open a receptacle after working on it for 90 minutes, it is deemed “bear proof”.

  • jd

    theres 2 different types of evolution theres macro, and micro evolution, macro evoltion is a change from one species to another but micro evolution is a change within a one has ever witnessed macro evolution but have witnessed micro but they claim tha our whole earth evolved from a single cell organism and that evolved into a animal and they kept evolving until there were many species. well how can this be so what did the polar bear evolve from well you say grizzlies. but you claim that this is macro evolution but its not its micro even if the grizzly did become a polar bear micro was the cause of it. the grizzly did not evolve into a polar bear from the begining there have always been these two bears one didnt turn into the other if someone witnesses macro evolution then il change my mind but for now i think that if we as humans have intelligence and animals have a form of intellagence to a degree then wouldnt there have to be a greater intellagence that doesnt apply to our earthly laws of science and is out side the realm of time and space and and has infinate knowledge well i think there is and this random chance stuff,it doesnt add up but if someone can explain evolution to me then well good for you but no one can explain al the details therefor it is false to me. i hope who ever reads this takes in my thoughts and ponders what i have said and not disregared it

  • Daniel Montclaire

    A couple of years ago while driving down to Long Island from upstate New York I saw a very large black bear standing by the side of the highway. He must have weighed 400 lbs and was twice the size of a large St. Bernard. This was within 90 miles of the NYC limits in a fairly populated area off Rt. 17. I was amazed how such a large conspicuous animal could co-exist with so many humans. As we humans tend to be intolerant of other species, the bear must have a very high intelligence level to survive so near one of the world’s biggest cities.

  • Kristoffer


    Just because haven’t witnessed evolution happening on your doorstep doesn’t mean it’s not true.

    Consider that this happens over a course og MILLIONS of years.
    This means that the change to animals will be minute from generation to generation, i.e. slightly darker/lighter fur, bigger/smaller body mass and so on.

    The fossile records is hard evidence IMO, but for real empirical proof, see the experiments with fruit flies.
    Scientists have seen mutations to the DNA of offspring causing them to have subtle differences from their origins.

    Regarding your “micro” and “macro” evolutions, this have no basis in the science paradigm of today.

    I strongly suggest you get your facts right before making such fallacies.

  • Quora

    Are wolves the most intelligent land predators?…

    Probably not.

    Bears are probably more intelligent (although I cannot definitively prove it). There is a huge amount of anecdotal evidence about their intelligence, and it makes sense (evolutionarily speaking) since they have extremely varied diets and…

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