More than WSU research at Bear Center

Research is the key component for the existence of the WSU Bear Research, Education, and Conservation Center. But that isn’t limited to WSU research— scientists from other institutions contribute to bear research as well.

Peeka rolls a steel puzzle box around, trying to get to the hidden apples inside.
Peeka rolls a steel puzzle box around, trying to get to the hidden apples inside.

Recently, Zoe Johnson-Ulrich, a graduate student at Oakland University in Michigan, has been working with the bears on a behavioral flexibility study.

“We’re basically giving the bears a series of puzzles they have to solve,” Johnson-Ulrich said. “We time them to see how long it takes to get to the food, or see if they keep going to the same spot or learn that the food has been moved. We’ve got several tests for them.”

Johnson-Ulrich is part of a research team comparing the way carnivores and omnivores adapt to different situations. So far, the team has studied tigers, sun bears, lynx, and hyenas, among other animals.

At WSU, one of the puzzles involved putting a few apples, a favorite treat for the bears, into a metal box. Each side of the box requires a different method for getting the fruit out, including a swinging door, a sliding door, and a tray.

Zoe Johnson-Ulrich and a WSU researcher roll the steel puzzle back into place.
Zoe Johnson-Ulrich and a WSU researcher roll the steel puzzle back into place.

“They do really well on these tests,” Johnson-Ulrich said. “They often try to use brute strength to get to the apples at first, but they figure it out pretty quickly.”

“We are very excited that our grizzly bears can contribute to a greater understanding of bear behavior and cognition,” said Monica Bando, the Bear Center manager. “Bears are widely recognized as a highly intelligent species and Zoe’s project aims to answer deeper questions about bear cognition.

“Her project simultaneously provides a unique and valuable form of enrichment and it’s fascinating to see how our bears use their brains—or brawn—to figure out how to solve these puzzles to obtain their apple rewards,” Bando added. “It’s a win-win project from our perspective.”

Learn more about WSU Bear Center research here.

Peeka figures out one solution to getting her apples in the puzzle box.
Peeka figures out one solution to getting her apples in the puzzle box.