You don’t have to spend much time watching Kodiak bears to realize how intelligent they are. Some researchers consider bears to be as intelligent as primates, and others believe a bear is as smart as a dog. Intelligence is difficult to measure, though, and to compare the intelligence of bears to that of other animals is a guessing game. It is clear that bears learn quickly and remember what they learn, and unfortunately, this can be to the bear’s detriment if he learns to associate food with humans. Bears can adapt to environmental changes or unique situations, and they will remember what they learned from a single situation or experience.
Bears are only able to make a limited range of sounds, and they do not have the necessary muscles for facial expressions. They can’t curl a lip like dogs do, and their small ears don’t allow the expressive maneuvers of cats, but bears do communicate with each other by posturing, attitude, and vocalization. A sow may send her cubs up a tree with a woofing sound or call them to her side by popping her jaws. Many bear vocalizations sound alike to a human’s ears, but bears can differentiate the sounds and understand what they mean.
We often hear bears growl while fishing near each other, and sows frequently growl at their cubs to reprimand them. A loud roar is a much more serious vocalization than a growl, and a grunt or a woofing noise often signifies a distressed or upset bear. A bear will grunt or woof at us if he is surprised by our presence, and this vocalization sometimes precedes a lunge or a false charge. The message delivered by a vocalization has as much to do with the message giver as it does with the vocalization. A large boar needs only to stomp his feet or issue a sharp “woof,” and smaller bears flee his presence. Those same actions and vocalizations delivered by a sub-adult bear likely would go unnoticed.
Bears communicate with humans just as they do with other bears, and understanding their language or choosing a guide who understands their language is important if you plan to spend time in the wilderness in bear country. Correctly interpreting vocal signals as well as body language and posturing may alert you to back away from a stressed or agitated bear.
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