Assessing the Social Function of Chemical Signalling in Brown Bears

A short film showcasing my PhD research and that of the bear group from the Centre for Wildlife Conservation, University of Cumbria (film courtesy of John Kitchin

My research focuses on the scent communication (also referred to as chemical signalling) behaviour of bears. For my PhD research I studied a high density population of brown bears Ursus arctos in Knight Inlet, British Columbia. Using camera traps oriented towards bear ‘rub trees’ I documented natural scent marking behaviour by different age sex classes during both the breeding and non-breading seasons. I also conducted a census of the forest to search for trees which bears had marked on and examined several variables as to why those trees were favoured over others. Using these non-invasive research methods, I addressed questions centred around the function of scent marking behaviour in brown bears and its effect on the behaviour of the population. This was one of the first projects to use camera traps in this manner to acquire behavioural data on wild animals.

I found evidence to suggest that brown bears are highly selective in where they place scent marks, how often they engage in marking behaviour, and how much time and energy they invest in scent marking. It appears the function of tree marking is to communicate competitive ability between individuals, with dominant males signalling their high competitive ability and subordinates detecting theses cues and modifying their behaviour accordingly.

From a conservation perspective, my PhD research hypothesised that scent marking in bears results in reduced conflict-induced mortality, affects social and spatial behaviour, contributes to individual fitness with population level consequences and could reduce infanticide. When assessing the functions of exhibited social behaviour, my research is critically underpinned by evolutionary theory. I am particularly interested in the evolution of strategic behaviour relative to the relationship between different age/sex classes and their social and physical environment. I believe that the social behaviour of bears is complex and aim to explore these complexities by studying behaviour under different ecological scenarios, for example high and low competition/high and low breeding opportunity.

Supervisors on the project:

Prof Owen Nevin, Central Queensland University, Australia.
Prof Frank Rosell, Telemark University College, Norway.
Dr Andrew Ramsey, University of Derby, UK.
Prof Chris Darimont, University of Victoria, Canada.

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