TAMWORTH – Black bears form friendships and alliances with each other out in the woods, and these behaviors make bears more similar to humans than even the great apes, said bear expert Dr. Ben Kilham during the annual meeting of the Lakes Region Planning Commission Monday evening.
The annual meeting was held at the Preserve at Chocorua and drew approximately 120 people. During the evening, which featured a dinner, annual awards were presented to various civic groups.
Among the award recipients were:
• Awards of Excellence, given to the Greater Meredith Program and the Lakes Region Community Developers.
• Community Service Awards, given to Cristina Ashjian of Moultonborough, Mardean Badger of Ashland, Stephanie Giovannucci of Northfield and Gina Lessard of Tuftonboro.
• The Kim Ayers Award, given to James Emery of New Hampton.
Following the awards, Kilham gave his keynote presentation, which covered what he said was the black bear's brand of "reciprocal altruism" and general bear behavior.
Since 1993, New Hampshire Fish and Game has been bringing injured, orphaned and abandoned black bear cubs to Kilham, 66, who is able to rehabilitate them in his Lyme-based facility – the nonprofit Kilham Bear Center – before releasing them into the wild. The center is run by Kilham, his sister Phoebe Kilham and his wife, Debbie.
Ben Kilham has a Ph.D. in environmental sciences from Drexel University and a bachelor's degree in wildlife biology from the University of New Hampshire.
He said he found female bears make alliances with their neighboring female bears over food supply. One bear might control an area rich with beech nuts and the other might have an area with lots of acorns. If one bear's food supply runs low, the other will allow that bear into her territory.
Kilham said bears understand friendship, fairness rules, gratitude and more.
"These bears are the only nonhuman animal that share our social behavior," Kilham said of reciprocal altruism, the trading of favors with a time delay. "We can learn more about ourselves from black bears than we can from any of these great apes, including chimpanzees."
Male bears travel much larger areas than females. Females have ranges of five to 15 square miles and hang out with their relatives. Kilham said he bases much of his research on a female matriarch named "Squirty" who lives among and rules her female descendants.
"She has difficulties with her granddaughters," said Kilham of Squirty, who endeavors to have the best access to food. "Their mothers had rules but they had no idea grandma had rules, too, and grandma's rules are more important."
He believes bears know which other bears are related to them through their scents. Male and female bears also leave scents on trees to signal desires to mate, and females will choose particular males.
Males have home ranges 200 square miles and practice mutualism – cooperation among strangers.
"These bears can be in New Hampshire today and Maine tomorrow, they could be in Vermont or even Quebec," Kilham said. "They get kicked out of concentrated food sites by the females, but they have to have a strategy as well, or they wouldn't eat."
Sometimes male bears, even those who are unrelated, will cooperate to push groups of female bears off their food sources – something they couldn't do by themselves. He figured this out in 2008 and 2009 when he hid cameras in a clear-cut area where he placed some corn. In 2008, the cameras took a number of pictures of two male bears who were sharing the corn.
"I realized they were friends," said Kilham, adding that he obtained hair samples which determined the bears were unrelated to each other. "Their strategy was to form a loose group of friends to move in and overpower the females so they have access to surplus food in the female home ranges. They knew if they came in by themselves they would be shown the door very unceremoniously by the females."
Kilham said bears are honest with their facial expressions and you can tell if the bear looks aggravated with ears pinned back with a frown, or happy with a smile.
Sometimes mother bears will "false charge," which means she comes charging at a person without attacking. The bear might also swat the ground and expel a big blast air from her lungs.
"All she wants to do is delay confrontation long enough for communication to take place," Kilham said.
He said if you encounter a bear the best bet is to hold your ground and speak softly and in a few minutes they will understand you are not a threat. They might circle you to learn your sent and figure out who you are, and after awhile they will just move on and it's safe to leave. He said if you've got a bag of garbage, the bear wants you to drop it.
"You can communicate with bears. They understand all our nonverbal communication," Kilham said, adding that 85 percent of what humans communicate is nonverbal and through body language. "If we were more aware of how we communicate to each other, it would be a lot easier to communicate with the animals."