Notes from Observing Andean Bears

This is the mountainside traversed by the bear and her cub.

I’ve just spent two weeks in northwest Peru, working in the field to study Andean (spectacled) bears with the Spectacled Bear Conservation Society and meeting with several people involved in conservation of the dry forest. As before, I’m impressed that the crew, the bears, and other large mammals in the area can cope with the terrain, the habitat, and the climate. It’s a very different experience than in the humid montane forests of Cusco. I can’t say which is more difficult to work in, because the challenges and constraints are just too different.

One big difference between the two sites is that in the dry forest it is possible, at times, to collect direct observations of the bears. I thought you might be interested in seeing my notes from the afternoon of September 9, 2010. My original notes, the raw data, were written in a type of systematic shorthand, but I’ll spare you the process of translation and tell you what happened, in every-day words.

The researchers' field camp, where the observations were taken.

Four of us (Robyn Appleton, Javier Vallejo, Isai Sanchez, and I) had hiked for several hours from one campsite up to another overlooking a waterhole. The plan was for us to spend the afternoon observing the area around the waterhole to ensure that there were no bears nearby that might be disturbed if we went to the waterhole. We wanted to change the batteries and memory card in a remote camera (i.e., “camera trap”) that had previously been deployed on a trail close to the waterhole. As we were setting up camp and beginning to prepare lunch, Javier spotted two dark specks moving along the cliff face about 1,300 feet (400 meters) away; there were bears to watch!

Here’s what we saw, according to my notes, written every five minutes while the bears were visible. The adult female bear was identified as Laura by her facial markings. Her cub, which is approximately one year old, has been named Martina.

1:35 p.m.: The adult female bear Laura is walking to the left, while her cub, Martina, follows 3 meters behind her.
1:40: Laura and Martina lie down in the shade of a rock outcrop.
1:40 to 3: The bears lie in the shade. We sit in the shade of a tarp.
3 p.m.: Laura walks uphill while Martina follows 1 meter behind her.
3:05: Laura continues to walk uphill, and Martina is now following 20 meters behind her mother.
3:10: Laura stands on her hind legs at the rock face, pulling down snails with her forepaws. We can’t tell exactly what Martina is doing, but she’s 4 meters lower down on the slope.
3:15: Laura is still standing on her hind legs feeding on snails, but Martina is no longer visible.
3:20: Laura walks to the left, while Martina is still not visible.

A cluster of white snails in the shade of an overhanging outcrop.

3:25: Laura has walked 65 meters to the left from where she was feeding on snails, and she has begun feeding on snails again. We can see Martina again, and she’s 10 meters below her mother. We still can’t tell what the cub is doing, but she’s not obviously interested in the snails.
3:30: Laura is walking to the left and uphill, following an obvious bear trail along the rock face. Martina is following her mother, 5 meters behind her.
3:32 p.m.: Laura and Martina follow the trail and go out of sight around the curve of the cliff. We do not see the bears again this day.

What can we learn from these types of notes? We can determine how often, for how long, and during what months adult bears feed on snails. We can document how cubs become less and less dependent on their mothers as they grow up by looking at the distance between the cub and her mother and how often the cubs nurse. We can document when bears are active, and when they sleep, and estimate how long they feed during each day. These, and many other aspects of bear behavior and ecology, can be addressed once we have enough observations of wild Andean bears in the dry forest of Lambayeque.

Russ Van Horn is a senior researcher for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, Camera Trap Surprise.

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