Brown bears do the twist to get each other’s attention. It turns out that the ursine animals have scent glands in their feet that they use to communicate by twisting their paws as they walk, being sure that they have left their mark.
Think of it like the ursine version of catching up on the news. With multiple bears living in the same area, the chemical signatures left in the footprints will tell any other bear that happens to pass through all sorts of vital information, such as who else is around, when they were there, their sex, age, and whether or not they are coming into heat. The study is published in Scientific Reports.
Wandering the forests, mountains and meadows, brown bears are largely lonely animals with large territories, as they roam massive distances. For this reason, communication between individuals is crucial, so that they avoid areas that may be frequented by competitors, and know where the opposite sex is when the magic is in the air.
Most mammals rely, in some part at least, on communicating through scent. Badgers have special glands in their bums, for example, while cats use their cheeks. But little has gone into how some of the largest terrestrial predators manage to chat over distance. Recently, it had been noted that bears may be using scratching posts to talk to each other and convey dominance, while another intriguing study found that polar bears may be passively marking the ice with their feet.
This spurred a group of researchers from Poland, Spain, and Austria to investigate whether this foot marking might actually be more common among ursine creatures than thought. They started by examining the paws of brown bears, and discovered special glands in their feet that released over 20 different chemicals that let others know who they are.
From this, they then turned to their wild counter parts, and tracked bears in Poland over two years, while filming bears in Spain over three. What they found corroborated with the idea that the creatures were using their smelly feet to communicate. As they walked, the bears would twist their feet, presumably in order to transfer as much scent to the ground as possible as they moved through an area.
What’s more, if a bear frequently used a particular trail through the forest, they would match their footprints to where they had walked previously, and did the twist so frequently that they would even wear down the grass to patches of bare soil. The males were also found to be more prolific groovers than the females.
So if you see a bear dancing in the woods, perhaps he’s just having a good old natter.