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In several of my posts I’ve written about species that are opportunists — birds and animals that exploit their environment to take advantage of every possible opportunity to feed and survive. Generally, these creatures are omnivores whose diets include both plant and animal materials. Or, if they are carnivores, they don’t limit themselves to a particular type of prey item. Common Ravens, Greater Roadrunners, Coyotes, Crested Caracaras, Coatis, Mexican and Steller’s Jays, all of these creatures are opportunists and all of them display high intelligence.
Brown Bears, whether they be Coastal, Grizzly, or European, are opportunistic omnivores. And they are extremely intelligent.
We’ve long known that these animals are smart. For centuries captive bears have been taught to perform in circuses, balancing on balls, dancing on their hind legs, etc. Bears in the wild are known for their ability to exploit whatever opportunities that come their way. They are renown camp raiders, figuring out how to steal food from sealed containers, and to use their intelligence and immense strength to outwit all sorts of man-made barriers.
Bears have large brains, larger in proportion to their bodies than those of most animals. These animals develop relatively slowly, attaining maturity only after several years. Young bears spend about three years with their mothers, during which they learn survival skills, such as which plants are edible. Unrelated juvenile bears, such as the two shown below, sometimes team up even after they been turned out by their mothers and they continue to reinforce each other’s behavior and learn from shared experiences.
One shouldn’t read too much into animals’ facial expressions but I imagine a calculating gleam in this juvenile’s eye. This young bear has a tendency to approach human observers a bit too closely, making it necessary for our guide to shoo it away via loud noises and gestures.
Mother bears not only teach their offspring about what is edible but they also teach them how to hunt. We spent much time in Alaska watching bears digging for clams. The shores of the Cook Inlet have very substantial tides. At low tide, the water subsides by several feet, exposing a vast area of mud flats. The Coastal Brown Bears exploit the recession of water by venturing out on the flats and digging for clams.
Clamming is an acquired skill. The mud flats are featureless and don’t divulge the clams’ location to the naked eye. The bears have learned how to find the clams under a foot or more of mud — whether by smell or by hearing — and are taught to do so as cubs by their mothers.
Bears have excellent memories. If a bear finds a productive feeding site at a particular time of the year, it will return year after year to that site at the precise time when food becomes available there. Bears learn to recognize and distinguish between individual humans. It occurred to me after our trip that the Coastal Brown Bears at Silver Salmon Creek surely recognize the guides who accompany visitors. I wonder if the bears would have reacted differently to us if we had approached them without a guide.
I’ll post more about bears’ behavior tomorrow.
Images made with a Canon R5, Canon RF 100-500mm f4.5-7.1 IS L zoom lens, M setting (auto ISO), settings varied.