Human superiority challenged after surprising discovery in tiny bears

21 Mar 2019

Image: © ArtushFoto/

The world’s smallest bear can exactly mimic the face of other bears, a power once thought only possible in humans and gorillas.

So much of our communication is reliant on our face, both in terms of the words we say and the facial expressions we pull. Among our repertoire is the ability to mimic other expressions, whether it’s imitating a gorilla or a coworker – this has been thought to be something exclusively seen in humans and gorillas.

However, this supposed superiority in the world of mimicry is under threat after a team of researchers from the University of Portsmouth announced the first discovery of another animal that can copy the facial expressions of an entirely different animal.

Future Human

In a paper published to Scientific Reports, the team described the ability being found in sun bears, a solitary species that is famous for being the smallest bear type in the world. Over a period of two years, the researchers saw that the bears use facial expressions to communicate in a similar way to humans and gorillas.

The surprising discovery strongly suggests that other mammals might be able to master the complex social skill, as well as having a greater degree of social sensitivity that we’ve missed until now.

Want to play rough

“Other primates and dogs are known to mimic each other, but only great apes and humans … were previously known to show such complexity in their facial mimicry,” said Dr Marina Davila-Ross of the research team.

“Because sun bears appear to have facial communication of such complexity and because they have no special evolutionary link to humans like monkeys are apes, nor are they domesticated animals like dogs, we are confident that this more advanced form of mimicry is present in various other species. This, however, needs to be further investigated.”

Adding further evidence to the theory that the trait is shared among other mammals is the fact that sun bears are not typically social animals, meaning the mimicry could be pervasive throughout multiple species.

Despite their shyness, during the recorded encounters the young bears were shown to have two distinct expressions: the display of the upper incisor teeth, and one without. The team believes that the subtle mimicry could be used to indicate to one another that they want to play rougher or strengthen social bonds.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic