American black bears may be able to recognize things they know in real life, such as pieces of food or humans, when looking at a photograph of the same thing in the computer, suggests new research.
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"Bears can transfer learning with real objects to photographs of those objects presented on computer screens," said one of the researchers, Zoe Johnson-Ulrich from the Oakland University in the US.
The study involving a black bear called Migwan and a computer screen was part of a broader research project into the welfare of bears in captivity.
It aimed to find out how the animals themselves rate the environment in which they are held, and the facilities, food and features provided to them.
The goal is to assess this by presenting bears with photographs of objects.
To do so, the research team first had to assess whether bears are in fact able to recognize images of objects and people familiar to them when these are presented to them on a touch screen.
With this in mind, the researchers tested the responses of Migwan.
The bear was born in the wild, but was rescued at a very young age and rehabilitated due to injuries.
She had previously received several months of training on an unrelated task using photographs of food items from her normal diet.
In this study, Migwan was first presented with two sets of objects new to her. Her ability to recognize these later, when presented with photographs including the items she had learned, was then assessed.
In a reverse task, she was also trained on the photographs of two different sets of objects and tested on the transfer to real objects.
It was found that Migwan was able to recognize, on a photograph, the visual features of objects or natural stimuli she already knew. It is an ability that bears share with hens, rhesus monkeys, pigeons, tortoises and horses.
The findings were published in Springer's journal Animal Cognition.
The researchers believe that the findings have important implications for the use of photographs in computerized studies involving bears, and in ultimately ensuring the welfare of captive bears.
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"Bears' responses to these photographs may reflect behaviors towards real items," Jennifer Vonk who is also from Oakland University noted.