Black Bears are Smarter Than Initially Thought, Can Learn and Teach Quickly per New Research

by Amy Myers

A recent study shows that Rubix cubes and Sudoku puzzles left behind by campers have helped black bears improve their intelligence.

That might have been an exaggeration. But these bears really are much smarter than they get credit for. Just ask Sue Fairbanks, who has been studying black bears for eight years at Oklahoma State University’s Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management. According to Fairbanks, these mammals are quickly improving their problem-solving skills when it comes to food. They may not be pulling gimmicks like Yogi and Boo Boo, but the black bears’ ability to study and overcome obstacles in their way of a meal still leaves researchers–and frustrated hunters–speechless.

“One of the biggest ways bears get into trouble with people is from eating corn from deer feeders,” Fairbanks told Oklahoman. “It’s not so much that they eat the corn, it’s that they tear apart the deer feeder in the process. That’s probably by far the biggest complaint that we have about the black bears.”

Like overgrown squirrels to a birdfeeder, no matter what deterrents are in their way, black bears still manage to find a way to take into that sweet yellow corn. One deer hunter went so far as to create an electric barrier around his feeder.

“He electrified the legs that were holding up the feeder apparatus,” Fairbanks explained. “But we had a bear that learned to unplug it. The bear just comes up and takes his claw and unplugs it and does whatever he wants to.”

Where the hunter manages to find an outlet in the middle woods, we’ll never know. Regardless, it seems that he and the black bear have an Elmer Fudd-Bugs Bunny type of relationship.

Wascally black bears.

Black Bears Teach Their Young How to Problem Solve in the Wild

Even if the stumped deer hunter does find a method that keeps the cunning black bear out of his deer feeder, it’s likely the victory won’t last long. Within her research, Fairbanks discovered that these bears aren’t selfish with their newfound knowledge.

“When they learn things like that, they will teach their offspring,” the OSU researcher reported.

Likely, as new generations spawn and teach their own young, black bears’ collective intelligence will continue to quickly advance in regards to hunting and gathering food. However, there is one factor that may delay this cognitive development. Fairbanks’ team found a distinct difference in the risk-taking behaviors of females and males. While boars are more explorative when it comes to food sources, sows are much more reserved.

“We found the males don’t care. They will go anywhere, but the females are sensitive to the habitat fragmentation,” Fairbanks said. “They will only set up territories, their home ranges, in areas that have less fragmentation.”

Depending on how willing the sow is to travel for food, her cubs may or may not learn how to adapt to manmade obstacles. For Oklahoma deer hunters, it might be smart to have a spare bag of corn.