For at least 200 years, the Inuit of Greenland and Canada have told stories of polar bears grabbing rocks or chunks of ice in their two front paws and throwing them at the skulls of unsuspecting walruses. Images of the phenomenon have even been documented in Inuit art. But the scientific community has largely ignored these accounts, or dismissed them as hearsay and myth – until now.
“One of the things that I have done over the years has been working with many experienced Inuit hunters on the pack ice, and one thing that you realize very quickly is if an experienced hunter tells you that he saw something or described something, you can very well take that for granted that it is very true, ”said Ian Stirling, a polar bear expert at the University of Alberta. As it happens guest host Ginella Massa.
“So the fact that there had been so many of these kinds of reports, and they were all very similar, indicated that there was something that might be worth looking into. “
Stirling and his colleagues looked at decades of documented traditional Inuit knowledge, including a report of an Inuit hunter in the mid-1990s, as well as recent evidence of a captive bear using tools to access its food. . They concluded that this was rare behavior, but very real.
Their conclusions are published last June in the Journal of the Arctic Institute of North America.
Stirling, a researcher emeritus for Environment and Climate Change Canada and an assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Alberta, is one of the world’s foremost polar bear experts and says he has always been intrigued by their intelligence.
So his interest was piqued when he heard about GoGo, a male polar bear at a zoo in Japan who has shown a propensity to use tools – a skill. scientists have long established themselves as a major signifier of intelligence in animals.
GoGo’s keepers hung meat above his enclosure, out of the bear’s reach. But the intelligent creature has devised several methods of obtaining its larva – either by knocking it over with a stick or by grabbing a large object and “pulling it with both legs like a basketball player” towards food, said Stirling.
The latter is the same technique that animals use to kill walruses, according to Inuit accounts.
“The most important part of this is that a bear is able to look at a situation, think about it in a three-dimensional sense, and then figure out what it might need to do to be successful,” Stirling said.
In other words, bears solve problems. And in this case, the problem to be solved is the big and thick skull of the walrus.
“They normally hunt seals, and seals have skulls that are very easy to crush when polar bears bite,” Stirling said.
“But walruses have very heavy and thick skulls and a polar bear just can’t bite the skull and kill the animal by doing that. “
So, instead, a bear can grab a rock or piece of ice and throw it at the walrus, either killing it outright or stunning it so it can approach and finish the job.
Gabriel Nirlungayuk, an Inuk hunter from Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, this ScienceNews.org that he has not personally seen a polar bear use tools to hunt walruses, but has heard stories.
“I’ve seen polar bears since I was probably seven years old. I have been around them, I have hunted alongside them and I have seen their behavior. The smartest hunters are usually bears, ”he said, noting that some polar bears trick seals into approaching while pretending to be asleep.
“I have worked with Inuit on traditional knowledge for a very long time and one of my favorite subjects is the polar bear because science often suggests one thing and Inuit say another,” said Nirlungayuk.
Stirling says scientists are unsure whether bears are learning how to use hunting tools on their own, as GoGo apparently did, or whether they are teaching each other the technique, like cockatoos opening trash cans, or dolphins using seashells to catch fish.
“It seems very likely to me that adult polar bears who pick it up will find it out on their own independently,” he said.
“Having said that, if it’s a bear who finds out and she’s accompanied by her cubs, and the cubs see what she’s doing, they’ll probably remember it and try to apply it under the right circumstances.” on time. “
Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview with Ian Stirling produced by Chloe Shantz-Hilkes.