A New Bear On the Block

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Slurp, slurp.

What’s that sound? If you are in the San Diego Zoo’s Bear Canyon over Thanksgiving weekend, you may be hearing the sound of our newest bear resident feeding. Our sloth bear will go on exhibit tomorrow, and he adds an interesting new dimension to our resident bear population.

Sloth bears feed on insects and have special adaptations to aid them in their foraging. They have ample, loose lips to create a type of “straw” for suction and a gap in their front teeth to allow them to suck things up into their mouths easily. They are so effective at creating suction that it is said you can hear them slurping as far away as the length of a football field! Come test this factoid yourself: can you hear our sloth bear from the bottom of Bear Canyon?

I learned today that sloth bears can use their incredible suction-creating modifications for another purpose; if agitated, the bear can turn that gap-and-straw into a powerful phlegm-spitting tool, much like that of a camel. Might not want to look cross-eyed at our new bear when you visit!

Named Buddha, our new sloth bear is an eight-year-old male who came to us last month. He will begin his life at the San Diego Zoo by inaugurating a new research study the Giant Panda Conservation Unit will begin with his arrival on exhibit. This is the first in an intensive line of work we hope to do with his species because, like the other rare bears in our collection, little is known about sloth bears. We hope to be a factor in changing that reality for these fascinating, shaggy bears.

Sloth bears are another bear species listed as vulnerable to extinction, like the sun, Andean or spectacled, and polar bears in our collection. Sloth bears are native to India and surrounding areas, but have been largely eradicated from many parts of their historic range due to habitat destruction and encroachment by humans. Sadly, sloth bears are also at risk of poaching, and females are often killed to capture infant bears, some as young a few days old. These cubs are often bound for the dancing bear and pet trade, where they meet a sad fate of pain and humiliation to earn money for their keepers.

But Buddha is far from the darker side of the sloth bear world, and he is here for you to admire and learn about. Come see his marvelous long claws, used to extract termites from their nests. Notice his long, shaggy coat, an adaptation that allows cubs to grip better as they ride –yes, ride- on their mother’s back. And be glad for the moat between you and he, because sloth bears are well known to be among the most dangerous of bears.

Welcome, Buddha bear! And Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician at the San Diego Zoo.