News & Politics

Local Bears Much Smarter Than One Might Expect

Sloth bears at the National Zoo recognized two-dimensional images as representations of three-dimensional objects.

Niko looks at photos of almonds and mango before indicating to keepers which food he would prefer to eat. Photograph by Stacey Tabellario, Smithsonian’s National Zoo

Two sloth bears at Smithsonian’s National Zoo were able to recognize photographs of food they prefer, the zoo announced Wednesday. Remi, a six-year-old female, and Niko, a five-year-old male, recognized photos of mealworms (their favorite food) in a study published in the journal Animal Cognition.

The bears, which are not related to sloths, blew at foods they ate to indicate which they preferred. Keepers later presented them with high-resolution photos of the foods, in pairs. Niko and Remi made their choices quickly, the zoo reports, placing mealworms at the top of a pyramid of desirable foods that included prunes, raisins, and nuts. The sloth bears were not into oranges and “omnivore kibble.”

Remi. Photograph by Connor Mallon, Smithsonian’s National Zoo.

“For the first time, we have data to support what those of us who work closely with this species know to be true—that these animals are remarkably intelligent,” lead author Stacey Tabellario says in the release.

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Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute,, and Washington City Paper. His book A Bigger Field Awaits Us: The Scottish Soccer Team That Fought the Great War was published in 2018. He lives in Del Ray.