Montana State University

MSU researcher tests grizzly bear strength for National Geographic documentary

July 3, 2006 -- By Tracy Ellig, MSU News Service

A captive grizzly bear investigates a simulated bird feeder during an experiment by Montana State University engineering professor Doug Cairns and graduate students Jay Smith and James Schmitt at the Grizzly Discovery Center in West Yellowstone. (Photo courtesy of Jay Smith)   High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
Bozeman - Ingredients for interesting graduate work at MSU:

One engineering professor, garnish with unusual projects.
One portable, field-ready dynamic analysis testing gizmo, custom-make before hand.
Two graduate students, motivated and talented for best results.
Four enormous grizzly bears, handle with care.
One odd research request, preferably not too strange.

Directions: Smear one end of portable, field-ready dynamic analysis testing gizmo with honey, jam and puréed fish heads. Add enormous grizzly bears one at a time. Allow bears to shake gizmo. Collect resulting data. Knead data with brains of professor and graduate students. Use computer to shape data into graphic model. Warm and serve, as ordered, to National Geographic. Sit back and enjoy upcoming documentary.

That was the recipe in May for Jay Smith of Bellingham, Wash., and James Schmitt of Helena. Both are mechanical engineering master's degree candidates at Montana State University whose advisor, professor Doug Cairns, presented them with a brief aside from their thesis work.

National Geographic Channel had called Cairns asking if he could measure a grizzly's strength relative to a human. The request didn't strike Cairns as odd and he immediately said yes.

"I get some pretty weird projects," said Cairns. "So weird has some pretty big bounds to me."

Like that project to crush things with huge cement blocks. Another is his long-term work bending and breaking stuff for the military. And don't forget the remote-controlled airplane he and his students built to monitor wildfires. Maybe not weird, but different.

In May, he and graduate student Smith went to the Grizzly Discovery Center in West Yellowstone with a National Geographic film crew. The Grizzly Discovery Center is home to eight captive grizzly bears that can be viewed by the public.

Cairns, Smith and Schmitt had spent part of the last eight months working on a "field portable dynamical testing and analysis device" for a different project. It's a kitchen-drawer-sized assembly of equipment that measures how much something shakes or how much force something gets hits with.

Cairns and Smith attached a sensor to a log to mimic a suspended bird feeder and then moved the sensor to the top of a tree. The bears swatted the log, shook the tree and data flowed. Since this was a test of relative strength of bears to humans, Cairns and Smith shook and swatted as well.

"They're pretty impressive creatures with good strength, agility and problem-solving abilities," Smith said. "They're patient with a problem. They wouldn't shake the tree as hard as they could right off the bat. They'd shake it, see how that worked, shake it a second time and so on. They behaved logically, like they were problem solving."

At one point, Cairns wondered if the problem the bears were trying to solve was how to eat him.

"I had climbed a tree to place an instrument. When the bears were allowed back in the pen, one of them made a bee-line for the tree, sniffed it, then turned and looked straight at me," Cairns said. "It was amazing. That really sent chills down my spine."

The team also tested what the bears could do to a 700-pound metal Dumpster.

"It was like a beach ball to them," Cairns said. "They could roll it over and over. It took a minimum of two people a concerted effort to tip it."

After two days of testing, Cairns and Smith came back to MSU. In less than 24 hours, Schmitt assembled the data into a computer model that could illustrate how a bear shaking a tree compared to a human.

"Our conclusion was a grizzly bear is equal to 2.5 to 5 humans in strength. I'm certain if a bear were enraged it would be much, much higher," Cairns said. "We never did get them ticked off. We didn't want to."

National Geographic plans to use the data and the footage for a National Geographic Explorer special on bears to air later this summer or fall.

"From a student's perspective," Smith said, "you never know what to expect working with Dr. Cairns."

Contact: Doug Cairns, (406) 994-6050 or