Why Are Bears ‘Friend-Shaped’?

‘If Not Friend, Why Friend-Shaped?’ A Beary Scientific Investigation

Why are bears both adorable and deadly? Scientific American investigates why these apex predators are “friend-shaped”

One bear cub looking at another one in the forest

Close up of playful European brown bear (Ursus arctos arctos) cubs in the woods of Finland.

There’s a meme about bears floating around the Internet: “If not friend, why friend-shaped?”

This is an intriguing question if you decide to take it seriously. Most deadly apex predators have a certain ferocity to them that doesn’t scream “friend”—think lions, wolves and crocodiles. So why do bears seem so cute and cuddly? Have we just been conditioned by teddy bears and Paddington to find them safe and comforting, or is there something else going on? It turns out that evolution and human psychology might help us understand their friend-shaped nature.

“I think that humans have this huge bias in terms of how we see bears,” says Rae Wynn-Grant, an ecologist and an affiliated researcher at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who has been studying bears for 14 years. Bears have featured prominently in folklore in many cultures around the world, including some Indigenous cultures in North America that have viewed the animals as humans’ kin. We have even seen bears in the sky and named constellations after them. “We have always found ourselves to be quite connected with different species of bears,” Wynn-Grant says. “We see ourselves in them.”

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This deep connection might happen, in part, because humans and the eight known species of bears live in similar environments. People and bears can have a variety of habitats, but both generally thrive in forested areas near bodies of water, such as rivers and lakes. They also have similar dietary habits as omnivores. Fruits, nuts, honey and meat could make a nice dinner for a black bear or a human.

And then there’s the physical resemblance—if you squint. “If a human were on all fours, they might resemble a bear. And if a bear was upright, it might resemble a person,” Wynn-Grant says. She’s not exaggerating: last summer a video of a sun bear in a Chinese zoo went viral because of how uncannily humanlike it looked while standing on its hind legs. (Wynn-Grant fielded many calls from reporters asking her to confirm that it was, indeed, a bear.)

Still, bears have evolved to have plenty of features that we don’t, and at least a few of them contribute to their overall friend-shapedness. For one, they have fluffy fur, theoretically perfect for petting. They also have small, rounded ears, which they evolved as an adaptation to conserve heat. Bigger, pointy ears would have more surface area, which would result in the faster transfer of heat.

Two polar bears interacting in the snow

Two polar bears play fight in the snow, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Arctic, Alaska.

Patrick J. Endres/Getty Images

And then there is bears’ big, boopable nose. “When it comes to their sense of smell, that is their superpower,” Wynn-Grant explains. “Polar bears can smell their prey under the sea ice from incredibly long distances. So it’s their sense of smell that really guides them and is a huge part of their ecology.”

Why do we find these features friendly? It could be that we simply think bears look like dogs, which humans domesticated over thousands of years explicitly to be our friends. Tens of millions of years ago, bears and dogs had a common ancestor, and they still share some physical traits. Within the order Carnivora, the two are both part of the suborder Caniformia, which refers to “doglike” carnivores. Other caniforms include racoons, seals, red pandas and otters—which are pretty friend-shaped animals.

Some of bears’ features—especially their chubby, rounded face—might also remind us of our own babies. In the 1940s ethologist Konrad Lorenz proposed a so-called baby schema to explain why infants of many species have similar features that are distinct from those of adults: big eyes, a round face and plump cheeks. These sorts of physical traits might trigger a nurturing response in humans, a reaction that helps our offspring survive. Research shows that such traits evoke positive emotions and social connections that can be measured by looking at changes in brain activity and levels of oxytocin, an important bonding hormone.

Bears tend to be very round, plump creatures. So they may appear to be friend-shaped because we have associated those features with harmlessness and social bonding. But the fact that they look like our babies doesn’t mean those associations are correct.

“Understand that I am like a bear lover, through and through. [But] I personally don’t think that bears look that cuddly. I don’t think that they look like friends. When I see bears, I see predators,” Wynn-Grant says. For her work, “I sedate them and handle their bodies and do checkups, and I look at their claws and their fangs and stuff. So I’m kind of like, ‘Oh, these are vicious animals.’”

The moral of the story: bears may be friend-shaped, but being a good friend to bears doesn’t mean taming them or minimizing their wildness. “I think that all wild animals should remain wild and not domesticated, not held in captivity, unless it’s for strict conservation reasons,” Wynn-Grant says. “Feeling like, ‘Oh, bears are just hanging out with us; they’re ours,’ that actually can move science backward in a direction we don’t want.”

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