Ask A Scientist

Do bears have the same brain as us?

Asked by: Robert Doeppe
School: Caryl E. Adams Elementary School, Whitney Point
Grade: 2
Teacher: Mrs. Ruggiero
Hobbies/Interests: Math, learning and soccer
Career Interest: Police Officer

Answer from George Catalano

Professor of Bioengineering, Binghamton University

Research area:
Turbulence, Fluid Mechanics, Aerodynamics, Environmental Ethics, and Modeling Ecosystems

PhD school:
University of Virginia, Aerospace Engineering, 1977

Interests/hobbies:
All things Italian, Creative Arts, Model trains & cars

Family:
Wife, Karen, is a registered yoga teacher at Yoga for Everybody at the Orthopedic Associates; lives with 3 Alaskan Malamutes, two more in our hearts

Perhaps we should consult first with the Winnie the Pooh for an answer to this question, as he always seems to be deep in thought, trying to come up with the proper response. As Winnie is often quoted as saying, "Think. Think. Think." So let us see if we can come up with an answer that might make Winnie proud. Do bears have the same brain as us? Rather than getting lost in dimensions, weights and other scientific measures, let us look at what we know about bear behavior, compare it to our own and focus on similarities and any differences. Bears are omnivorous - meaning they eat vegetable and animal matter. Their natural diet, although mainly vegetarian, includes berries, grasses, nuts and seeds, roots, insects, fish, carrion and, occasionally, mammals such as deer and moose. That sounds pretty similar to us. Bears are not mean or malicious; they are very gentle and tolerant animals. Mother bears are affectionate, protective, devoted, strict, sensitive and attentive with their young. Not unlike people, bears can be empathetic, fearful, joyful, playful, social and even altruistic. Hmm... that again sounds like us or at least those among us whom we may want to pattern our behavior after. OK. Here's another topic. What about family lives? With intelligence comparable to that of the great apes, bears are highly evolved social animals. While they are all individuals, they often share friendship, resources and security. Bears form hierarchies and have structured kinship relationships. Once again, not much difference exists between bear society and ours. Well, people talk; some even more than we may want them to do so. So that must be a huge difference, right? Bears certainly do not talk. Yet bears do in fact communicate using body language, sounds and smells. Bears live in a rich and complex scent-defined world, depending on their acute sense of smell for information about the world around them. Their smelling ability is extremely sensitive, with one hundred times more nasal mucosa area than a human. In addition, bears use a complex system of social messages which are communicated through trails of airborne scent, transferred to twigs, branches and grasses, and scents left behind intentionally by tree rubbing or biting, as well as scat or urine marks. So bears do not talk but they certainly can and do communicate. Looking back over our list, it becomes obvious that perhaps there may not be as much of a difference as we might first imagine. Bear's power, intelligence, and similarities to humans have led to a rich body of myths and legends in many cultures. Portrayals of bears in both scientific and fictional literature suggest that the bear is perhaps the most "humanized" of all animals. Bear legends and rituals are important to many Native American peoples. Here in the northeastern portion of the U.S., various native groups have traditionally revered and honored the black bear.

Last Updated: 9/18/13