Soft and smooth skin is considered a luxury. But now it appears that humans aren't the only ones scrubbing their epidermis with something you might find at Bath & Body Works. A new study published in the journal Animal Cognition takes a look at a strange case where a wild brown bear was seen using a barnacle-covered stone to scratch off excess fur and skin. Are the fearsome predators actually more "clever" than we give them credit for? Here's what you should know:
What exactly was the bear observed doing?
Volker Deecke, a senior lecturer at the University of Cumbria in the United Kingdom, was in Alaska's Glacier Bay in the summer of 2010 on a project observing whales. While out with his camera, he witnessed something peculiar: A bathing bear scrubbing himself with a rock. "The bear started picking up rocks from the seafloor and manipulating them with his hands and eventually just scratching his face using this rock," Deecke tells Live Science. The animal repeated the rock scratching three times, with three different barnacle-covered rocks.
But don't plenty of other animals use tools?
A few do, yes. Primates are the obvious example, and certain species of fish are known to use rocks to crack open shells. Elephants use branches to swat pesky flies away from their bodies, and sea otters sometimes use stones to open clams or urchins. But this marks the first time a bear has been observed using a tool, at least with its paws.
What other clever techniques do bears employ?
When molting, the animals sometimes rub against trees or boulders to shed fur; but using a handheld tool requires a much more complicated thought process. A boulder is still "part of the environment," says Deecke. "To use a tool like this, the animal needs to have the ability to extend the boundaries of its body." A separate 1972 report suggested that a polar bear may have clubbed a seal in the head with a chunk of ice, says Michael Marshall at New Scientist. "But researchers did not see the event, and the behavior has never been seen since."
Are bears more sophisticated than we thought?
This is a single incident, so it's unclear how widespread tool use really is among these solitary creatures. However, "these animals do have relatively large brains compared to their body size," Deecke tells the BBC, "the largest of any carnivore, and much larger than more social carnivores, like lions." But for now it seems as if bears "are probably far more complex than we give them credit for," says Deecke.