World's smallest species of bear can read faces

Look for the bear necessities: reading facial expressions.

Alice Lipscombe-Southwell

Sun bears can precisely copy the facial expressions of other bears, a study has found. This is the first time that this form of communication has been seen in animals other than humans or gorillas.

The sun bear, also known as the honey bear due to its love of the sweet stuff, is the world’s smallest bear species. It lives in the jungles of southeastern Asia and is usually solitary in the wild, which makes its newly discovered ability even more unexpected –skills like reading facial expressions tend to only be found in highly social animals like primates.

“Mimicking the facial expressions of others in exact ways is one of the pillars of human communication,” said Dr Marina Davila-Ross from the University of Portsmouth, who led the research. “Other primates and dogs are known to mimic each other, but only great apes and humans, and now sun bears, were previously known to show such complexity in their facial mimicry.”

The 22 bears that were involved in the study were aged between 2 and 12 years old, and live at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre in Malaysia. Over the course of the two-year study, the bears played together hundreds of times, and their facial expressions were recorded. The scientists found that mimicry was seen most often during gentle play.

According to Derry Taylor, who also took part in the research, the behaviour could help the bears to communicate that they want to play more roughly, or intensify social bonds. "That’s what makes these results so fascinating – they are a non-social species who when face-to-face can communicate subtly and precisely,"he said.

Sun bears are just 120 to 150cm tall and weigh up to 80kg. A number of threats – including bile harvesting, habitat loss, poaching and persecution from farmers – have meant that their population numbers have plummeted in the last 30 years.

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