OUR MATCH ENDS TODAY! All monthly donations matched for a year. DONATE NOW
Get the latest news and updates from Animal Equality

Brown Bear Recorded Using Tools

A wild brown bear has been photographed using a barnacle-covered rock to exfoliate in the first recorded act of tool use by the species.
March 7, 2012 Updated: July 14, 2022

The observation was made in Glacier Bay National Park, Alaska by the University of Cumbria’s Dr. Volker Deecke. “The bear may have been using the rock to scratch irritated skin or remove food from its fur while molting,” Dr. Deecke says; “It means brown bears could be more advanced than first thought.” Dr. Deecke’s observations, which were made while on holiday in the park, have been published in the journal Animal Cognition. Bears normally groom themselves when molting by rubbing against trees or boulders or by using their claws but have never been seen using tools before to scratch an itch. Bear behavior:

  • Brown bears (Ursus arctos) hunt alone except during seasonal spectacles such as salmon spawning. Then large numbers of bears gather together.
  • They can also bring down moose, elk, and black bears.
  • Brown bears spend nearly half their lives underground in hibernation.
  • Cubs (pictured) can remain with their mother for two to four years.
  • Siblings often remain together for several additional years.
  • The Brown bear can be found in Asia, China, Europe, Himalayas, North America and Russia.

“Brown bears live quite solitary lives and it had been thought that species living like this were unlikely to generate that level of skill”, says Dr. Deecke, a senior lecturer at Cumbria University’s Centre for Wildlife Conservation. “These animals do have relatively large brains compared to their body size, the largest of any carnivore, and much larger than more social carnivores, like lions,” says Dr. Deecke. “There are a lot of ideas about sociality having impacted on brain size and cognitive abilities. It looks like bears are probably far more complex than we give them credit for.” “From a cognitive perspective, it’s something quite sophisticated and requires certain brain processing powers that we didn’t know bears had.” Dr. Deecke says “humans are the ultimate tool users, but the finding makes bears the fifth non-primate mammal known to make use of tools.” Sea otters use rocks to smash the shells of sea urchins and clams, Asian elephants have been witnessed using tree branches to swat flies, some bottle-nose dolphins use sponges to cover their rostrum while foraging and humpback whales have been known to make use of bubbles to help them trap groups of fish. “Although it is only a single observation, the discovery is an exciting prospect for researchers and could provide the basis for further research”, Dr. Deecke says; “We don’t know how common this behaviour is, but I think the real learning experience has been for me is how little we actually know about cognitive abilities of bears in general and brown bears specifically.“I’m reasonably confident that we’ll be in for a few surprises if and when people do start paying more attention to bears and how they use their big brains in the wild”, says Dr. Deecke.

Related content

Latest News
July 15, 2024

An initiative to protect farmed animals in the State of Colima, Mexico has passed with unanimous support!
July 17, 2024

An undercover investigation reveals deliberate animal cruelty at one of Germany's largest pig farms. Advocates claim it’s among the worst suffering they’ve seen.
July 11, 2024

Olympic medallists, experts, and academics are calling on the Olympic Games to remove foie gras from the menu. In an open letter, they highlight the severe ethical, environmental, and health issues related to foie gras produced through force-feeding.