Investigating social learning in free-ranging mammals is gaining popularity among researchers. Natural experiments are ideal for studying social learning, but are rare compared to captive studies because of practical limitations and ethical concerns. Such experiments are often restricted or forbidden because they require manipulation of the environment, ecology, or behavior of free-ranging species. As a result, developing new methods to investigate social learning in the field is essential. The main goal of this study was to use genetic data and a new testing framework to determine if social learning from mothers to their offspring is at least partly responsible for free-ranging black bears foraging on human foods in Yosemite National Park. I estimated a relatedness coefficient and the most probable relationship for all combinations of 2 bears (n = 150) sampled in 2004–2007. I then grouped these pairs by their foraging behavior to test predictions deduced from asocial learning, transmission, genetic inheritance, and social learning hypotheses. Results from both analyses suggest that mother–offspring social learning is the primary mechanism responsible for black bears foraging on human food in Yosemite. In addition, results also suggest that some bears are innovators, learning to forage on human food as independents. I found no support for the genetic inheritance hypothesis.
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Vol. 94 • No. 6