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Why do our researchers sometimes wear sunglasses when they work with the grizzly bears?

Posted by | June 16, 2016

Over the years, WSU researchers have found that grizzly bears are predominantly right-handed and can close gates. Now, it turns out, they may also read facial expressions.

Sometimes WSU researchers wear sunglasses so they don't tip-off the bears during a test.
Sometimes WSU researchers wear sunglasses so they don’t tip-off the bears during a test.

We can’t ask grizzly bears if they are enjoying a certain activity. That’s why we study their behaviors. Well, it turns out that they might be studying our behaviors as well.

A WSU doctoral student analyzing how grizzly bears interact with her – and whether they seemed to enjoy it — made a surprising discovery.  Several months into the animal enrichment study, she realized that some of the grizzly bears would watch her face each time she held up a flash card for them to identify. If the bears swatted a paw at the correct card, they received a reward. But instead of looking at the card through the chain-link fence, they began to look at her.

Were they reading her facial cues on how to respond? To answer that question, she began wearing sunglasses each time she help up flash cards. Guess what? The bears focused their eyes on the card instead of her face.

By understanding what grizzly bears enjoy doing and how they communicate, the hope is that we can help them and other captive animals lead happy, healthy lives. So if you happen to notice one of our researchers wearing sunglasses when the sun isn’t out, you’ll know it’s because our bears have eagle eyes.