Well, humanity had a good run, but now it's over. This bear was recently spotted using a rock as a tool, the first time we've seen such behavior. It's only a matter of time before bears with rayguns show up.
While we've spotted quite a bit of evidence of tool use - broadly defined as consciously manipulating an object to accomplish a given task - in birds and fish, we've seen surprisingly little evidence of tool use in mammals outside the primates. Now, in a discovery sure to confirm all of Stephen Colbert's worst fears about these godless killing machines, a young brown bear in southeastern Alaska was spotted using this rock as a tool. Writing in Animal Cognition, University of Cumbria researcher Volker B. Deecke argues it's simply an extension of bears' natural exfoliation habits:
The animal repeatedly picked up barnacle-encrusted rocks in shallow water, manipulated and re-oriented them in its forepaws, and used them to rub its neck and muzzle. The behaviour probably served to relieve irritated skin or to remove food-remains from the fur. Bears habitually rub against stationary objects and overturn rocks and boulders during foraging and such rubbing behaviour could have been transferred to a freely movable object to classify as tool-use.
Put that way, it doesn't seem like that big a deal, does it? Wrong. Deecke next points out that this seemingly harmless tool use is actually evidence of some very sophisticated mental processes both in terms of fine motor skills and general intelligence. Does this mean bears have been playing the long game all along, lulling us into a false sense of security with a lot of mindless mayhem when they've really been super-intelligent all along? Does a bear crap in the woods and, if so, does it use a secretly invented toilet? I, uh, may be getting away from Deecke's research ever so slightly. Here's what he actually wrote on the subject:
The bear exhibited considerable motor skills when manipulating the rocks, which clearly shows that these animals possess the advanced motor learning necessary for tool-use. Advanced spatial cognition and motor skills for object manipulation during feeding and tool-use provide a possible explanation for why bears have the largest brains relative to body size of all carnivores. Systematic research into the cognitive abilities of bears, both in captivity and in the wild, is clearly warranted to fully understand their motor-learning skills and physical intelligence related to tool-use and other object manipulation tasks.
Never has good, solid scientific research foreshadowed humanity's doom quite like this. And to think it all starts with one itchy young bear needing to exfoliate.
Via Animal Cognition. Image by Volker B. Deecke.