“Bears reintroduce us to our animal shadow, its biological reality in the outdoors, its eternal grip on our cultural soul.” Peter Nabokov
Did you know that polar bears that hunt seals on ice flows slither along on their stomachs until the seal looks up? Next the bears cover their coal black noses with white paws and then rush the seal from 15 to 20 feet away.
My query (and fascination) revolves around how polar bears know that they have black noses? Do they look at themselves through the mirror of still waters? Are they engaged in self – reflection?
What kind of cognitive thought processes are involved in making the decision to use what polar bears “know” about themselves to hunt their prey successfully? How do all bears know what they know? This epistemological enigma haunts me.
The apparent consciousness of the importance of self concealment is something that I have witnessed repeatedly when “walking with black bears” in the forest as an ethologist – that is, a person who studies black bears in their natural environment.
Often I am astonished by the disappearing act of a bear who simply does not want to interact with me. His/her ability to melt into the forest leaves me wondering if the bear I was following through dense foliage was actually there in the first place.
That such a large animal can move with such speed, stealth, and grace is a Black bear behavior that never ceases to amaze me. Even if one chooses to tolerate my presence, s/he may slap a tree, or huff once or twice to remind me to keep my distance. If a bear turns, flattens his ears and lowers his head, I know this bear has changed his mind and is about to false charge me. If I choose to stand my ground this animal might race in my direction and inevitably veer off at the last moment. Having been the recipient of a false charge that really frightened me during my early research years, I choose instead to speak quietly to the bear telling him that I am leaving. I have never had a bear follow me after one of these encounters.
(Should a bear choose to allow me to accompany him/her – usually it is a yearling that allows me to participate – I am treated to behaviors that I would ordinarily miss like the choice of mushroom or a small flowering woodland plant like oxalis that a particular bear prefers to eat. Certain berries apparently appeal to different individuals because I have witnessed one bear passing by what seemed like a coveted delicacy, a bright red jack in the pulpit berry cluster to chose a single dogberry. Stopping to rake away dead softwood logs seems to be a universal passion, no doubt because tasty protein rich grubs/ants etc. are present during all the summer months).
Cubs are taught by their mothers the moment they leave their dens in the spring to climb a tree at the first sign of danger. Mother “umphs” and in seconds the clickety clack of tiny claws can be heard, if not seen as the young ones scamper so high up a tree that it is impossible to see one even if the researcher knows one is there (occasionally a cub refuses to stay treed and is cuffed or spanked by mother). Baby bears are usually masters of self – concealment!
Females with cubs are also very much afraid of large male bears who will sometimes kill the cubs but they are not afraid of humans. This does not mean that they are not wary. They are (All bears have to be taught to fear humans). When meeting a person a female Black bear with cubs will stand up on two legs to see the stranger better. If she perceives no threat she will change directions and move off deeper into the forest with the cubs trailing behind her. If threatened, she immediately trees her cubs to conceal them and starts running in the opposite direction. Many cubs have been orphaned by hunters who shoot the mother.
Grizzly and Black bears have an equally amazing ability to walk in each other’s footsteps, so that over time it is possible to witness trails made with deep indentations in boggy places. In the woodland areas I traverse bear trails are narrow and are used year after year by various Black bears who also conveniently, remain totally anonymous to anyone but their Ursine relatives. Do bears think about this strategy while they are walking, and if so what conclusions do they draw?
During periods when a number of Black bears use the same general area a network of trails appear. Sometimes one path runs parallel with another with only a few trees in between. During mating season the use of this network of trails allows dominant and sub adult male bears to avoid each other without conflict, a fact that always leaves me with a sense of deep respect, because bears choose not to engage in open conflict whenever possible. Black Bears use saplings and brush as a form of concealment to avoid potential problems.
Another example of self – concealment that Black bears exhibit is one that always makes me laugh. Even when a bear is curious about me s/he will usually insist upon peering at me through a screen of twigs, or from behind the trunk of a tree. And make no mistake, Black bears are very curious about people who do not threaten them (I have read that the same is true of other bears but I am writing from personal experience and don’t want to generalize). Curiosity is a sign of intelligence.
There is a distinct pecking order that is part of bear biology with older males on top, females and cubs beneath, and yearlings at the very bottom. After leaving their mothers in June/July (if the mother hasn’t been shot the year before) male yearlings (second year cubs) are also searching for new territories. Young females spend their lives living in their mother’s home range, so the young males are at the greatest risk. Tragically, it is these young male bears that are most often shot and killed.
Black bears are diurnal animals – that is they are normally active early in the day, nap in the afternoon, feed again before dusk and sleep during the night. However, due to the pressure put upon them by hunters they have become “night bears.” By the end of a yearling’s first summer the bear has adapted to becoming nocturnal in order to survive, another example of using concealment as a strategy by choosing the safety of darkness.
More fascinating is what happens when it is time for a northern Black bear to enter a den for the last time before hibernation. If there is snow on the ground a bear will walk backwards in his own tracks to enter his winter abode. Why would s/he go to so much trouble unless the bear was aware of the need for self-concealment from his/her worst enemy, man?
The art of concealment is well developed in Black bears biologically because they evolved as prey animals. The animals survived because they could climb trees in a flash. In areas where there is no forest cover Black bears are absent because these native bears co –evolved on this continent with the carnivorous (now extinct) short faced bear and lived in heavily forested areas where they found safety in trees. Even 4 LB cubs can disappear up a tree in seconds. We now know, thanks to bear biologist Lynn Roger’s video cams, that cubs practice climbing in the den, just three weeks after birth. Today, Black bears are most commonly found in arboreal forests in northern areas that stretch into the Canadian Shield but small populations exist in southern in mountainous areas like those in northern New Mexico.
That bears also have an ability to reflect on their behavior before acting in a particular way seems quite obvious to me not just because of their ability to conceal themselves. Some of this concealment behavior is, of course, related to survival (biology) as already mentioned, but their thinking is not. Bears have navigational skills that defy explanation, they have complex, sophisticated, flexible, and poorly understood social organizations, they love to play, and can heal themselves of wounds with plants from the forest (How do they know which plants to use as a poultrice or to ingest?).
By developing the intelligence and forethought needed to act in ways that require bears to think ahead into the future as well as to solve immediate problems is enough to blur the distinction between bear and man on a permanent basis from my point of view.
In closing I dedicate this little essay on the “Art of Concealment” to one male yearling in particular and by extension to all wandering bears that face a perilous fall journey as they search out new territories, or stay in one they have already chosen while being hunted mercilessly by man.
May They Learn Fast.
May They Learn Well.
May they live through the winter in order to feel the warmth of the return of the sun as it appears over a spring horizon as they emerge from their dens …