With "Thus Spake Zarathustra" playing, a grizzly bear reached up and grabbed a donut dangling on a wire.
Okay, maybe the famous theme from "2001: A Space Odyssey" wasn't playing at the time, but a 9-year-old bear named Kio did in fact give Washington State University researchers a hint of something eye-opening: Grizzlies may be able to make and use tools.
No, it isn't the result of a James Franco experiment gone awry. It could be an innate ability of bears, one that has never been thoroughly researched. WSU is monitoring eight bears at their Bear Research, Education and Conservation Center to see what the bears are capable of.
Kio, a 9-year-old grizzly, has passed all of the tests given by the researchers with flying colors.
Biologist Lynne Nelson is leading the team that watches the three male and five female grizzlies five days a week. “While it’s generally accepted that grizzly bears are intelligent creatures, until now no scientific research had been conducted on their problem-solving skills,” she said in a press release.
In the experiment, the scientists suspend a donut on a wire, just out of reach of an upright grizzly bear. The first phase determines if the bears will stand on a conveniently placed tree stump to snag the snack. Simple enough, but then the researchers move the stump away from the donut and turn it on its side. The heart of the experiment is next: Will bears actively use something in their surroundings to help them get dessert?
Roan, a 3-year-old grizzly bear, recently figured out that if he rolls the stump, he can then stand on it to reach the donut.
For most of the bears, it remains to be seen, but Kio appears to be smarter -- and stuffs down more goodies -- than the average bear. The others, like 3-year-old Roan, are slowly figuring out the challenge. "Grizzlies are smart foragers and they’ll work hard to get at food –- which, as we’re seeing, can include some pretty sophisticated strategies," Nelson said. The researchers are hoping their experiments will shed light on how bears manipulate their environment, especially in regards to shifts in habitat and availability of food.
This photo was taken before any of the eight bears figured out how to move the tree stump and use it to reach the donut.
How long until bears master tree stumps and move onto weapons? Only time will tell. But if fish start using weapons too, it could turn the yearly migration of salmon into an all out war.