SCIENCE
07/15/2016 12:50 pm ET

Bear Known For Lounging Shows She *Nose* Computers

Who knew bears were so brainy?
Migwan, a brainy black bear at the Detroit Zoo.
Patti Truesdell/Detroit Zoological Society
Migwan, a brainy black bear at the Detroit Zoo.

Are bears brainier than we thought?

New research on Migwan, a North American black bear at the Detroit Zoo, shows that bears are able to connect photographs of objects with the objects themselves. It’s believed to be the first time that Ursus americanus or any other bear species has been shown to have this ability, which has been seen in dogs, monkeys, pigeons and other animals.

Migwan was born in the wild but was brought to the zoo as a cub in 2002 after being found with her face full of porcupine quills. She spends her days sitting in odd positions with her legs out or lounging at the front of her habitat with her arms crossed, according to the zoo’s website.

But Migwan took a break from lounging to participate in the research, in which she showed that she was able to press her nose to a computer screen to “choose” the images of playthings she had been trained to recognize. 

Pretty impressive, for sure. But exactly what Migwan knows about the link between images viewed on a computer screen and their real-world counterparts isn’t quite clear.

“We don’t know if she is ‘representing’ the photographs as real objects because we don’t know if she thinks the photograph IS the object, or understands the representational nature, in that photos are like objects but not exactly the same,” Zoe Johnson-Ulrich, a graduate student in psychology at the University of Oakland in Michigan and one of the researchers, told The Huffington Post in an email.

For example, she added, “You can’t eat a photograph of an apple.”

No, but you can use a photograph to show what you like to eat. In subsequent research, Johnson-Ulrich said, Migwan was able to show by touching her nose to the computer screen that she really, really likes grapes ― beets, not so much. 

Migwan in another dramatic pose.
Roy Lewis
Migwan in another dramatic pose.

Johnson-Ulrich, who co-authored a paper about the research which was published online June 24 in the journal Animal Cognition, said there was no reason to believe that Migwan is a special bear. 

“Our personal experiences working with other bears suggests they might all be motivated and quick learners,” she said in the email.

And bears may not be the only animal species that is smarter than we realize, according to Dr. Marc Bekoff, a retired professor of ecology and biology at the University of Colorado and a well-known expert on animal cognition.

In an email to HuffPost, Bekoff called the new research “very important,” adding that “It clearly shows that comparative studies on animal cognition and emotions continually are revealing that we have so much to learn about the cognitive lives of other animals. We must keep the door open and not write off other animals as being ‘not all that smart.’”

When it comes to animal intelligence, Bekoff said, we should all expect more surprises.

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