Friday Weird Science: Don't try this at home!!!

May 11 2012 Published by under Friday Weird Science

It's time to talk about bears again, my friends. We have already learned that, contrary to popular belief, they cannot smell the menstruation (or rather, they probably can, but don't care):

But there is another, more difficult question to answer: are bears safe!??!

At first you might be thinking "um, no, they are BEARS. Bears, like sharks and electric fences and parachuteless skydiving, are on the list of things labeled 'not safe'".

Well, sure, but we've got to test it with SCIENCE! And this means we need to get a bunch of people and ask them to walk right up to a bunch of bears. For science.

Any volunteers??

(C'mon over!!! Source)

Moen et al. "Behaviour of Solitary Adult Scandinavian Brown Bears (Ursus arctos) when Approached by Humans on Foot" PLoS ONE, 2012.

This is actually part of a story of recovery. The Scandinavian Brown Bear (Ursus arctos) was hunted almost to extinction in Sweden and Finland in the early 1900's. Once they received protections, the populations began to bounce back, and Sweden now has about 3,300 bears (which is getting close to the original numbers). It's a nice success story, but while bears are increasing in numbers, humans are taking up more space. And this means more bear/human interactions.

And the Scandinavians are apparently feeling a bit squeamy about this. You can't blame them, bears DO kill people, and the media coverage of the few fatalities is pretty heavy. So then people get (understandably) worried. Is it safe to hang out in the woods? What about the bears?

So how do you reduce fear of bears? Well, you can educate people as to the bears' habits, where they hang out, how to avoid them and what to do when you find one. And then you can conduct a study where you have a bunch of people walk up to bears and see what happens. For science!

Who wants to try?


So how do you sneak up on a bear? First, you need to know where your bears are. The authors of this study had 30 bears of different ages (I love that this paper has a section of the methods called simply "the bears") each equipped with a GPS tracking collar. Once they had the GPS coordinates of the bear (about a year after they had been collared, so the bears had plenty of time for recovery), they sent out between one and four people, acting as "hikers". The "hikers" approached the bear from a distance of 870 meters (ish), starting upwind, and kept a normal hiking pace while talking amongst themselves (and probably trying NOT to talk about bears, though I bet it's all they were thinking about..."hey larry, about the game last night..." "...BEARS"). If the hiker was alone, they were instructed to talk to themselves. If they are anything like me, this would be one of the times where I wouldn't have anything to say to myself.

The hikers approached to within 50 meters of the bear, and then headed off. The observers stated that they actually saw the bears only about 15% of the time (and they performed 169 approach attempts).

And what happened? Well, it turns out that bears don't like people. In fact, they run away from them. 80% of the time. When the bears stayed, they were usually 80 meters or more away from the observers. Bears were more likely to run away when there was more than one person. But in none of the cases did the bears display any aggressiveness. This actually makes the Scandinavian Brown Bear less aggressive than the North American variety. Bears can act aggressive when wounded, if they have cubs, or if they have a tasty pile of meat to gnaw on. None of the bears in this study were wounded or had cubs, but several had fresh carcasses, and all of them gave them up and lumbered away without a fight.

So it looks like your average bear would rather flight than fight when approached by humans. Of course, there were no momma bears in this sample, and the authors always approached upwind. Downwind might startle the bear more and allow people to get closer before being detected. But for now, it appears safe to go hiking in Scandinavia without fear of being attacked by bears. And we all salute the people brave enough to walk up to bears for science.


8 responses so far

  • This is so awesome. I love science that challenges preconceptions of the "everyone knows" variety.

  • Kierra says:

    It's possible that the behavior they are seeing from the bears is due to selective pressure. The species was depleted through hunting, which means that bears that actively avoid humans would have been selected for, so those traits are probably still very prevalent in the population.

  • DJMH says:

    Rangers in the California state and national forests always tell people they should sing or talk to themselves when walking through wooded areas, so as not to startle any bears by rounding a corner on them. In light of recent events, maybe this advice should be given to suburban Californians as well?

  • gmaniPhone says:

    Unsure about research into brown bears but I've produced video on black bears with Lynn Rodgers of the North American Bear Center in Ely, MN. I've been bluff charged by a mother black bear. Twice! It's unnerving. Exactly the emotion its intended to evoke (it caused my wife to jump behind me. Take him first! thanks love :-) But as Lynn has found, it's all a bluff. He's never seen a black bear actually physically attack someone in over 30 years of researching and tracking black bears in northern Minnesota.

    more info at the North American Bear Center website

    you can watch my TV segment for the classic PBS science series Newton's Apple here

  • floodmouse says:

    I would absolutely approach a bear for a study like this. Anyone need a volunteer? I would have to be paid at least expenses and time lost from work. There is almost nothing cooler than the sensation of approaching something more bigger and dangerous than you. Risk is exciting, like roller coasters. :)

  • Old Geezer says:

    There is another reason these bears may have walked away. They have already had interactions with humans since they are all wearing GPS devices. Perhaps they do not want any further interaction and choose to depart the scene.

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