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Bears can mimic complex facial expressions to communicate, scientists find

The Telegraph logo The Telegraph 22/03/2019 Henry Bodkin
grizzly bear, ursus arctos. (Photo by: Prisma Bildagentur/UIG via Getty Images) grizzly bear, ursus arctos. (Photo by: Prisma Bildagentur/UIG via Getty Images)

Bears can mimic each others’ facial expressions, scientists have discovered, indicating sophisticated communication is widespread across the animal kingdom.

Scientists observing sun bears in Malaysia noticed them copying each other as they scrunched up their faces to reveal incisor teeth.

Until now it was believed that only humans and gorillas - close genetic relatives - used complex facial mimicry to communicate.

The new observations are significant because bears have no special evolutionary link to humans; moreover they are non-social animals, spending most of their time foraging alone, therefore needing a smaller range of communication tools.

A bear prepares for hibernation at the Four Paws Bear Sanctuary in Pristina, November 10, 2017. REUTERS/Hazir Reka © Thomson Reuters A bear prepares for hibernation at the Four Paws Bear Sanctuary in Pristina, November 10, 2017. REUTERS/Hazir Reka

The researchers from Portsmouth University said these factors suggest facial mimicry as a form of advanced communication may be fairly common among mammals, rather than the preserve of highly developed social species.

They studied the 22 animals, also known as honey bears due to their voracious appetite for honeycombs, in Malaysia for two years.

Although a solitary species in the wild, the bears became playful once in captivity, taking part in hundreds of bouts of both rough and gentle play over the period.

The scientists noticed that during gentle play the bears were likely to engage in precise facial mimicry.

Dr Davila-Ross said: "Mimicking the facial expressions of others in exact ways is one of the pillars of human communication.

Coastal brown bear, also known as Grizzly Bear, Ursus Arcos, female and cubs. South Central Alaska. United States of America. (Photo by: Education Images/UIG via Getty Images) Coastal brown bear, also known as Grizzly Bear, Ursus Arcos, female and cubs. South Central Alaska. United States of America. (Photo by: Education Images/UIG via Getty Images) "Because sun bears appear to have facial communication of such complexity and because they have no special evolutionary link to humans like monkeys are apes, nor are they domesticated animals like dogs, we are confident that this more advanced form of mimicry is present in various other species.

"What's most surprising is the sun bear is not a social animal.

"In the wild, it's a relatively solitary animal, so this suggests the ability to communicate via complex facial expressions could be a pervasive trait in mammals, allowing them to navigate their societies."

Previous research by the Portsmouth team has shown that dogs are able to mimic each other facially, but in a far less sophisticated way than that shown by the bears.

Last year another study by the University showed that horses can remember humans’ facial expressions, a well as human voices.

In the new study, the bears would often open their mouths towards their play partner in one of two ways, either with their teeth exposed or hidden under the lips.

The researchers found that the bears were predominantly producing either of these open-mouth expressions when they saw their play partner was looking at them.

sloth bear, melursus ursinus. (Photo by: Prisma by Dukas/UIG via Getty Images) sloth bear, melursus ursinus. (Photo by: Prisma by Dukas/UIG via Getty Images) Derry Taylor, who co-authored the research, said: "Sun bears are an elusive species in the wild and so very little is known about them.

“We know they live in tropical rainforests, eat almost everything, and that outside of the mating season adults have little to do with one another.

"That's what makes these results so fascinating--they are a non-social species who when face to face can communicate subtly and precisely." Sun bears stand at about 120 150 cm tall and weigh up to 80kg.

Their numbers are dwindling due to deforestation, poaching and being killed by farmers for eating crops.

Experts estimate the species have decline approximately 30 per cent over the last three bear generations.

New mothers are increasingly being killed so their cub can be taken and raised as a pet or kept in captivity as 'bile bears' where their bile is harvested for use in some Chinese medicines.

Gallery: Photos of smiling animals that will make your day (Photo Services)


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