Who You Calling “Sloth?”

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Curious Sahaasa sniffs out his new surroudings.

Curious sloth bear Sahaasa sniffs out his new surroundings.

This week, I had the opportunity to observe two new additions to the San Diego Zoo’s bear canyon. Sahaasa and Kayla, 2-year-old sibling sloth bears, got busy making themselves at home—and watching each go about it in their own way was quite interesting!

Sloth bears are not well known to many North Americans, but they are really very interesting creatures. Their long, shaggy coat makes them appear quite cute and cuddly, but they are good-sized bears with sharp claws and teeth and can therefore be quite dangerous if provoked. They live in the grasslands and open dry forests of India, where they feed primarily on insects; those extra long claws are particularly useful at shredding rotting wood and hard-packed dirt to gain access to the grubs, termites, and other delicious invertebrates that live beneath. So, too, is their muzzle well adapted to foraging for bugs, with highly mobile lips, nostrils that can close to keep dirt out, and a gap in their front teeth to allow them to vacuum up creepy crawlies. These guys are well suited to play nature’s exterminator.

The sloth bear is so-called because originally it was thought they resembled sloths, the slow-moving tree dwellers. In fact, sloths bears are not related to sloths, but the differences don’t end there.

In three hours yesterday, I watched Sahaasa climb a tree a half dozen times, crawl into the moat just as often, scratch a hole in a 6-inch-thick (15 centimeters) piece of deadwood, dig a hole (that his big body could nearly fit into) in about 10 minutes, dangle from the climbing structure more times than I could count, and sniff out every inch of his new exhibit space. The dictionary defines “sloth” as “habitual disinclination to exertion, laziness.” Apparently Sahaasa didn’t get the memo.

Kayla is a little more shy and reticent than her brother, but she performed her share of mayhem as well: she uprooted a shrub with little effort and dragged it half way across her exhibit. If you’d like to come say “hi” to the newest additions to our bear family, you might want to do it soon. I can’t guarantee any of their exhibit plants or hardware will survive for much longer!

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, World Orangutan Day.

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