Spatial Transposition Tasks in Indian Sloth Bears (Melursus ursinus) and Bornean Sun Bears (Helarctos malayanus euryspilus)

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Abstract

Spatial transposition tasks assess individuals’ ability to represent nonvisible spatial object displacements. Several nonhuman mammal species have been tested on this task including primates, cats, and dogs, but to date, great apes seem the only taxon that has repeatedly and consistently solved spatial transposition tasks. The authors investigated the ability of captive sloth and sun bears to solve spatial transposition tasks. Both species belong to the same taxonomic group as cats and dogs, but unlike them and similar to apes, they have an omnivorous diet that requires them to keep track of fruit sources in space and time. The bears were first tested on a visible displacement task and those that succeeded were further tested on a spatial transposition task that involved a 180° transposition, followed by 2 tasks with two 360° transpositions. All 7 sloth bears and 7 out of 9 sun bears solved the visible displacement task. The 180° transposition task was solved by 6 out of 7 sloth bears and 1 out of the 5 tested sun bears. Three sloth bears were tested on all 4 experiments and even solved 2-chained 360° transpositions. Control conditions were conducted showing that the bears’ performance did not rely on olfactory or auditory cues. The results provide the first indication that bears might be able to track invisible objects. Further studies will be necessary to confirm these results and to control the influence of associative learning. The present study emphasizes the importance of including different animal species in the investigation of what underlies the evolution of different cognitive skills.

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