There’s a quiet little scene in Jaws that shows Chief Brody and his young son imitating each other’s gestures and facial expressions. The interaction is a great cinematic example of a real-life phenomenon called facial mimicry, an ability linked with keen social intelligence that’s been observed in humans and some great apes—and now, bears.
As reported in a study published Thursday in Scientific Reports, scientists have observed for the first time highly precise facial mimicry in a species that is not domesticated or a primate: the sun bear. These bears live in the tropical forests of southeast Asia and are the smallest bears on Earth, typically weighing between 60 and 145 pounds (for comparison, grizzlies are about five times heavier).
What sun bears lack in heft they make up for in social sophistication, according to the study. They have the ability to reciprocate expressions with a surprising degree of accuracy, especially an open-mouthed gaping face that seemed popular among the observed bears.
Scientists co-led by University of Portsmouth researchers Marina Davila-Ross, a comparative psychologist, and Derry Taylor, a PhD student studying animal communication, observed interactions between 22 sun bears housed at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre in Malaysia.
The team witnessed hundreds of playful bouts between the bears that involved roughhousing and facial mimicry. The bears often exchanged the slack-jawed expression, using two main variants that either revealed the upper incisors or kept them hidden under the upper lip. These subtle riffs were copied by other bears more often than not, suggesting that they can recognize and replicate the exact expressions made by their playmates.
“This study provided evidence that sun bears produce facial expressions to communicate in an efficient, effective, and exact way,” the team said in the paper. “Such complexity in facial communication was previously not known for a non-domesticated, non-primate species and, furthermore, cannot be explained by evolved adaptations to a complex social environment, as these bears are primarily solitary in the wild.”
The study’s main takeaway is that facial mimicry may much more common in the wild than previously assumed. Just as important is all the adorable footage the team captured of the bears as they wrestled and made derpy faces at each other.
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