In a series of number-based tests on a touch-screen panel involving three captive bears, a team at Oakland University in the US found the animals are wise enough to choose greater numbers on the screen to get maximum rewards.
"People don't really understand them to be as intelligent as they probably are," said lead researcher Dr Jennifer Vonk.
Although bears have the largest relative brain size of any carnivore, their cognition is not well understood. Dr Vonk said that the North American black bears were first trained to understand the process and equipment involved in the tests.
"This is the first published work with bears working on a touch screen. It hasn't been done with any large carnivores," she was quoted as saying by the BBC.
The research, published in the journal Animal Behaviour, involved presenting the bears with two sets of dots or arrays. They touched the screen to select one or other of the arrays, and were given food if they got the answer right.
One was rewarded for touching the screen with a greater number dots, and for the other two bears, a correct answer was an array with a fewer number of dots.
The team wanted to ensure that the animals were not merely estimating magnitude, a skill that has been shown by many animals.
So they varied the pattern of the dots and the shaded area on which the arrays were shown, and in some tests the dots were also moving.
"If there's more dots and less area covered, it's a better indication that they actually do something analogous to counting rather than just estimating the amount of something," Dr Vonk said.
Although the bears did better when the size of the area corresponded to the number of dots, they were also found to be capable of compensating for an area that was smaller or larger than normal for the number of dots it contained.
"This is really the first test of a species that has not evolved to live socially to see if they can individuate items," Dr Vonk added.