If you’ve read my previous posts (see Andean Bear Country), and writings by other people studying Andean bears, you’ll undoubtedly have noticed that we almost never see the bears themselves. However, the Spectacled Bear Conservation Society (SBC) and its director, Robyn Appleton, didn’t read the rulebook. They’ve discovered a study site in the dry forest where the bears are much more visible than at any other site described to date. In fact, Robyn and her field team have identified over 30 individual bears by their facial markings!
The Andean bear program has grown, both in scope and potential, through a new collaboration between the San Diego Zoo and SBC. [Editor's note: Andean and spectacled bears are the same species.] This nonprofit organization has been working in the dry forest of northwestern Peru since 2006, building strong relationships with the local communities and making incredible discoveries about bear biology and ecology.
In addition to identifying 30 bears, SBC researchers have observed foraging and scent-marking behavior, described the first three maternal dens ever discovered by scientists, and begun monitoring the space use of three bears by collaring them with GPS satellite transmitters. Whew!
Most of the year, in most years, the dry forest lives up to its name: it’s dry. And hot. Only during some rainy seasons does it begin to be as densely lush and green as the cloud forest, which is what biologists have thought of as primary Andean bear habitat. However, there are historical reports of Andean bears living in dry and even coastal habitats, and it’s already clear from SBC’s work that the bears are reproducing and surviving in habitat that looks pretty challenging to humans. In fact, when I visited an area near SBC’s study site in 2007, the heat and slope made it one of the most challenging hikes I’d ever been on. Since then I’ve had tougher hikes, in southern Peru, but that’s another story. Although I’ll return soon to the cloud forest where I’ll continue to work, we can learn and accomplish a great deal for bear conservation by expanding our horizons, broadening the way we think about Andean bears, and working in the dry forest with SBC.
Stay tuned, it’s going to be an interesting year!
Russ Van Horn is a senior researcher with the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research.