Ask A Bear: How Do You Communicate?
We may not have iPhones or Tinder, but bears have plenty of ways of letting each other know what's up.
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Q: Bears avoid each other’s territories, learn to coexist in productive fishing spots and berry patches, and don’t seem to have any trouble finding mates even when you’re spread out across vast areas. How do you do it? —Drop Me a Line
A: Simple: We use our Blackbearies, of course. Wocka wocka wocka!
Seriously, though, you’re right: For an animal with no data plan, postal service, or, well, thumbs, we do a remarkably good job of keeping in touch. Unlike humans, however, we’re not really social animals—we mostly keep to ourselves, coming together with other bears only to mate, raise cubs, and occasionally cohabitate at seasonal food sources like Katmai National Park and Preserve’s Brooks falls. So most of the information we communicate is pretty essential: “Bear wuz here,” “I’m looking for my mama,” and, uh, “I’m looking for my mama <3.”
We rely pretty heavily on odors—after all, we have a more sensitive nose than any bloodhound. We’ll scratch and rub up on trees as we go about our business. The resulting traces can tell other members of our species everything they need to know about us: Our age, our sex, and whether or not we’re looking for love. Think of it like a Facebook profile, only harder for Mark Zuckerberg to sell to advertisers.
Another way we communicate is through vocalizations—though not as much as you might think. Despite how Hollywood likes to depict us, we’re actually pretty quiet. We’ll grunt and click at our cubs, mates, and playmates, or huff when we’re afraid. Hear us roar? You might want to keep your distance: We reserve that for conflicts, whether with threats to our young or rivals for a meal.
When we do end up face to face, we rely largely on our body language to let each other know what’s up. If I ignore another bear and continue going about my business, I’m trying to play it cool—letting them know that I’m not a threat. If I start pawing at the ground, huffing, and lunging forward, on the other hand, use caution: I’m either bluffing or I’m genuinely ready to rumble.