Grizzly nature or mother nurture
If we can stop female grizzlies from becoming problem bears in the first place, we can prevent the social learning of problem behaviour in cubs and help stop the cycle at its source.
Scientists identify social learning as the culprit for problem grizzly bears in Western Canada.
By KATIE WILLIS
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When it comes to conflict behaviour in grizzly bears, researchers have discovered that cubs learning bad behaviour from mom are to blame.
Offspring of grizzly bear mothers with a history of human-bear conflicts are more likely to be involved in human-bear conflicts than offspring of mothers without a history of human-bear conflicts, according to a new study from the University of Alberta.
“Bear biologists have long suspected that cubs learn behaviours from their mothers. Our research explicitly evaluates that hypothesis and provides evidence of social learning,” explains Andrea Morehouse, principal investigator and post-doctoral fellow at the University of Alberta with professor Mark Boyce.
Working in conjunction with the United States Geological Survey (USGS) in Montana, researchers studied 2,043 grizzly bears in Montana, Alberta and British Columbia.
“This nature versus nurture debate has been ongoing for over a century. Based on a large sample size and new DNA methods, nurture clearly gets the nod for conflict behaviour in grizzly bears,” says Boyce, Alberta Conservation Association Chair in Fisheries & Wildlife.
The grizzly bear family trees and a long-term dataset were combined with on-the-ground fieldwork, providing strong evidence that social learning, not DNA, is the culprit.
Managing problem bears
“These findings also offer an unprecedented opportunity to understand how we can improve grizzly bear management,” says Tabitha Graves, research ecologist with USGS.
According to Morehouse, this is an important message for biologists, wildlife managers and the public alike.
“Proactive measures for preventing grizzly bear conflicts are critical. If we can stop female grizzlies from becoming problem bears in the first place, we can prevent the social learning of problem behaviour in cubs and help stop the cycle at its source,” says Morehouse.
Strategies for preventing bears from learning bad behaviour in the first place include electric fencing, attractant management and public awareness.
The paper, “Nature vs. Nurture: Evidence for social learning of conflict behaviour in grizzly bears” was published in PLOS ONE in fall 2016.
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