Animal Spotlight: Sloth Bear

Looking for Family Ursidae*
*rhymes with sky

When you look up into the night sky for the stars that form The Big Dipper and The Little Dipper, do you realize you’re searching for some of the brightest stars within Ursa Major and Ursa Minor?  

It was the Greek astronomer Ptolemy who named 2 of his 44 constellations “Big Bear” and “Little Bear” (the Minor), two of the most famous constellations visible from the northern hemisphere. Bears have symbolized strength and wisdom in many world cultures for millennia, and we reference them in our language: We know people who bear a resemblance, we hope our better actions bear fruit, and, in Tucson, we Bear Down. It’s no surprise, then, that Ptolemy featured them so prominently in his famous list of stars. In modern times, Ursa Major still ranks as the third largest of all 88 constellations recognized by the International Astronomical Union. 

Equipped with that bit of bear lore, I’d like to introduce you to a more Earth-bound member of Family Ursidae coming soon to the Reid Park Zoo’s Pathway to Asia Expansion:  Meet the sloth bear

First thing to know

This shaggy black bear is not related to sloths. Like polar, grizzly (a subspecies of brown), and Andean bears, the sloth bear is not a slow mover and can easily outrun a human. Compared to these bears, however, it does have some quirky characteristics which confused early scientists when they were trying to classify and name it.

At first sight, the sloth bear has long, shaggy black fur, smallish ears, a broad, round face, and creamy white patches of fur on its chest, usually in the shape of a Y, O, or U. So far, so good—very bear-like. Then you notice the bear’s front arms are longer than its back legs which gives it a kind of arms-dangling, sloth-like appearance. Its curvy claws are very long and don’t retract, and its specialized front feet (arms) turn inward, making it appear a bit clumsy. The bear opens its mouth and—surprise!—its top two front teeth are missing! It turns out that those curvy claws, specialized feet, and that unusual tooth gap, combined with a powerful tongue and hard palate, are the most efficient tools this bear could possibly have for slurping up its favorite food—termites and ants! Yes, this bear slurps up its food. Noisily. Very noisily.

About that diet! 

All bears are classified as omnivores which simply means they can eat both animals and plants; however, each species has evolved differently within its own ecosystem and has developed its own preferential food sources.  Bears and their diets range from the obligate, mostly carnivorous polar bear, which thrives on seals, to the mostly herbivorous panda bear, which thrives on the foliage of bamboo trees. 

The sloth bear’s diet lies somewhere in between. It thrives on termites, ants, even bees and honey, and, quite handily, it has the ability to close its nostrils off to keep those critters from crawling inside! During the Asian monsoon season, a sloth bear will eat mangos, figs, and berries, too. Like Andean bears from South America, sloth bears don’t need to hibernate because they have year-round food sources. 

At Reid Park Zoo, the bears have the most varied and complex diets of all the animals. You can often watch the grizzly bears eat whole heads of celery or lettuce, peel an orange, or forage for berries, but they also enjoy a regular diet of whole carrots, mixed nuts, mackerel, salmon, herring, eggs, ground meat, and bones. The Andean bear is highly herbivorous (second only to panda bears) and prefers melons, pears, apples, grapes, raisins, bananas, berries, and some bear chow (pellets), but her weekly diet also includes mixed nuts, carrots, and leafy greens. On hot summer days in the desert southwest, all the bears enjoy homemade popsicles filled with these same nutritious foods.

Living in the wild forests and grasslands of Asia

Like many animals, sloth bears live a solitary existence, usually coming together only for breeding; however, if food is plentiful, they may gather in groups. Like all bears, a female sloth bear will give birth to her blind, hairless cubs in a den where they will live with mom until they’re able to exist safely in the outside world. Everyone knows how fiercely protective a mother bear can be, but the sloth bear goes above and beyond—she will carry her cubs on her back until they’re about 9 months old. Remember that long, shaggy black fur on mom’s back? In little cubs’ hands, it comes in very handy for grabbing, climbing up, and hanging on! Traveling this way provides the cubs with camouflage from predators and keeps them safe until they can move more quickly on the ground. 

But all is not well in the wild. These beautiful bears are currently listed as vulnerable and have lost between 30 and 49% of their living space, depending on location, over the past 30 years. In addition to loss of habitat, they are losing their lives in retaliation for human encounters. Wherever bears live, whether in North America, South America, Europe, or Asia, the primary things causing them harm are people and climate change. Because we’re part of the problem, we must be part of the solution. In a future blog, I’ll share more information about what we can all do, as individuals and collectively, to help the sloth bears—and all bears—living in the wild. 

Why are sloth bears coming to live at Reid Park Zoo? Because their numbers are decreasing at such an  alarming rate, the Association for Zoos and Aquariums has established a Species Survival Plan (SSP) for them to ensure their genetic survival. Zoos throughout the country are assisting scientists, both in the field and at zoological institutions, to determine what these bears need to survive in the modern world living in such close proximity to humans. The sloth bears at Reid Park Zoo will become ambassadors for their species, and their mission will be to educate us about the threats their wild counterparts face.  

Ready to learn more?  Here’s a delightful video to help us envision the Reid Park Zoo expansion – and  you can get a glimpse of the sloth bear habitat which will include a waterfall, stream, pool, climbing structure, scent detectors, and a cave area. In the near future, we may have the rare privilege of witnessing a sloth bear carrying her cub on her back!

In the meantime, you can observe two other bear species at the Reid Park Zoo. The rescued grizzly bear brother-and-sister companions, Ronan and Finley, live in their habitat just south of the giraffes. Look for them on the “land” side with its boulders, climbing platforms, stream outlet, and rock climbing-cave structure or on the “water” side with its giant tree trunk, waterfall, pool, and underwater cave area. On a warm day, you might catch them swimming in the pool or wading in the shallow stream. 

The female Andean bear, Oja, lives in the South America loop directly opposite the entrance to the pacu fish cave and the black-necked swan pool. If you haven’t visited the zoo recently, bear with us for just a few weeks longer. Oja is having a staycation at the zoo’s health center while construction for the expanded Andean bear habitat is completed. She’ll be back in her pool and snoozing in her Mulberry tree very soon. 

In the meantime, if you feel the need to gaze at a bear and can’t visit the zoo, just look up at the night sky and find those bright stars representing Family Ursidae. We can never have too many bears in our lives!

2 Comments

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  1. How exciting to have another Bear species coming town! Sounds like the Sloth bear may love living here on Tucson’s termite basin!!

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