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Ambassador Mi Ton Teiow

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What to Eat When There’s Nothing to Eat?

Bear ambassador Mi Ton Teiow finds relatively shallow snow, but no food, as the northern winter begins.

Bear ambassador Mi Ton Teiow finds relatively shallow snow, but no food, as the northern winter begins.

The answer? Nothing.

Most of us are familiar with the idea that some bears spend long periods of time in dens, inactive and not consuming significant amounts of food or water. Some bears in some locations survive eating nothing by doing almost nothing. They become inactive, which is sometimes called winter sleep or hibernation. Although you may be familiar with this aspect of bear ecology, have you thought about how incredible it is? These big mammals can go without eating or drinking for months, sometimes while birthing and nursing cubs, yet wake up without bedsores or weakened muscles! This is why the physiology of bears, including that of giant pandas and polar bears, has been a hot field of research.

The only way for a wild American black bear to survive for months without food in the northern U.S. is to save energy by hibernating in a safe, insulated den. The hole to the right of the tree trunk is the only obvious indication that there is an American black bear below the snow.

The only way for a wild American black bear to survive for months without food in the northern US is to save energy by hibernating in a safe, insulated den. The hole to the right of the tree trunk is the only obvious indication that there is an American black bear below the snow.

Although all female bears seclude themselves in dens to give birth to cubs, not all bears enter dens for long periods of time. There’s even variation within species in whether or not individual bears remain in dens or for how long. Researchers have found that in general, bears spend long periods in dens not to avoid cold temperatures, but to reduce their metabolic requirements when there is not enough food to survive environmental conditions. So, in the southern part of their range where their energy balance can remain positive, individual brown bears, Asiatic black bears, and American black bears may not den except to give birth. At last year’s meeting of the International Association for Bear Research and Management (see post, A Whimsical Bear Ambassador Arrives), Lorraine Scotson and Dave Garshelis reported that some sun bears might den for periods of time in the most northern parts of their range, meaning that non-reproductive denning may occur among at least half of the world’s bear species.

The holes melted in the snow are made by the black bear’s respiration.

The holes melted in the snow are made by the black bear’s respiration.

The giant panda is one bear species that has not been known to den in response to a relative lack of food, and perhaps it cannot do so. During the rare times when all the bamboo plants in an area have flowered and then died, the giant pandas have left the area in search of food; they have not entered dens. Perhaps this is because a bamboo die-off is unpredictable from the giant panda’s point of view, or perhaps this is because a giant panda eating bamboo cannot build up sufficient energy reserves to be able to wait out the lean time in a den, or maybe both factors play a role.

Adult polar bears also do not enter dens solely to avoid food shortages. Pregnant polar bears do spend prolonged periods of time in dens, but biologists think other adult polar bears don’t do so. However, polar bears in some populations regularly fast for extended periods when sea ice conditions don’t allow them to hunt. As for other bears, anything that causes a polar bear to expend more energy, whether inside or outside of a den, or to fast for a longer period of time, makes it less likely that the bear will survive. Climate change is doing just that by reducing the amount of sea ice available to polar bears: the bears expend more energy and go without eating for a longer period of time, creating a great challenge for the conservation of this species (see Polar Bears, Climate Change, and Mi Ton Teiow).

Hibernating bears often line their den with leaves, twigs, and grasses, insulating themselves from the cold ground and conserving additional energy.

Hibernating bears often line their den with leaves, twigs, and grasses, insulating themselves from the cold ground and conserving additional energy.

The Bear Specialist Group’s Ambassador Mi Ton Teiow recently made a visit to the northern US, where he found plenty of snow but little food for bears. After a short stay in this area, which receives an average of 45 inches of snow per year, the ambassador returned (fled?) back to sunny San Diego, where the last measurable snow fell on the city in 1967. The odds are good that Ambassador Mi will not be snow camping in San Diego any time soon.

Russ Van Horn is a scientist with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, Courtship in Front of the Camera.

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Bear Ambassador Learns Importance of Plants

Ambassador Mi Ton Teiow explores some bamboo growing at the San Diego Zoo. This bamboo represents the incredible horticultural collection of San Diego Zoo Global and a key component of giant panda habitat.

Ambassador Mi Ton Teiow explores some bamboo growing at the San Diego Zoo. This bamboo represents the incredible horticultural collection of San Diego Zoo Global and a key component of giant panda habitat.

We’ve mentioned in previous Bear Blog posts that some of the major threats to different bear species are habitat loss, or habitat degradation, or habitat fragmentation. As you can tell, for bear conservation it’s important to consider the amount and quality of bear habitat. For food, bears (except for polar bears) rely on plants. Thus, people concerned about bear conservation often become concerned about the conservation of the plant communities on which the bears depend. Although San Diego Zoo Global is involved in conservation of animals, it also does a lot of work with plants.

Recently I talked to botanists and horticulturists at the San Diego Zoo, and our whimsical Bear Ambassador, Mi Ton Teiow, was able to visit plants from bear habitats around the world. You might know that our horticultural staff grow most of the bamboo eaten by the giant pandas or the eucalyptus eaten by the koalas, but that’s just the beginning of what they do! I knew that certain parts of the Zoo contained plants related to some I’d seen in Andean bear habitat in the cloud forest of southeast Peru, but our horticulturists pointed out close relatives of plants that are important to Andean bears in the dry forest of northwest Peru, as well as plants from Australia, Hawaii, and Africa.

This flowering powder puff tree (Calliandra haematocephala) may catch your eye, but there’s more to the plant collection than what meets the eye.

This flowering powder puff tree (Calliandra haematocephala) may catch your eye, but there’s more to the plant collection than what meets the eye.

One reason they are able to grow such a diversity of plants at the Zoo is its variation in topography, which helps create a wide range of microclimates. I was surprised to learn that during winter, certain parts of the Zoo may receive frost at night! Of course, another reason the horticulture staff is able to grow such diverse plants is their research to understand just what the different plants need to grow and reproduce. Sometimes this research requires them to conduct experiments such as those in the lab to determine the best conditions for propagating orchid seeds, or field trips like those to investigate wild fig trees.

San Diego Zoo Global grows plants for many different reasons, and sometimes because the plants themselves are of conservation concern, plant species can be endangered, and captive reproduction can be an effective tool for plants as well as animals. In addition to plant conservation efforts, horticulture staff grow plants for several reasons related to animal husbandry. As I mentioned earlier, some plants are fed to the animals, providing them with more natural sources of nutrition than they would get otherwise. Parts of other plants are given to animals as a form of enrichment, especially because of their scents. When an animal shreds a few branches it’s been given, the animal is performing a natural behavior in a renewable manner: the horticulture department will grow more!

This diversity of plant species and structure may resemble tropical bear habitat, but it’s actually part of the horticultural collection at the San Diego Zoo.

This diversity of plant species and structure may resemble tropical bear habitat, but it’s actually part of the horticultural collection at the San Diego Zoo.

Woody plants are also used as structures in the animal enclosures. Large limbs, logs, and sometimes stumps are placed so that animals have items to rub on, climb on, and sometimes sleep upon. You can probably see our bears interacting with their log “furniture” any time you visit the Zoo. And, any time you visit, you can pick up a free map and take yourself on a self-guided walking tour of the botanical collection surrounding you. If you’re able to visit the Zoo on the third Friday of a month, you can explore the plant collections further. On those Fridays, called Plant Day & Orchid Odyssey, you can take a free narrated botanical bus tour to learn more about the plant collections, and you can visit the orchid greenhouse, which is home to more than 3,000 orchid plants!

The next time you’re visiting the San Diego Zoo or Safari Park, or a zoo elsewhere, take a closer look at the plants; they’re a whole lot more than “just” landscaping; they’re food, furniture, and enrichment for the animals and plant ambassadors of the habitats on which their wild relatives depend.

Russ Van Horn is a scientist with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, Bad News Bears.

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Bad News Bears

Ambassador Mi and flag

Mi Ton Teiow, an international ambassador for bear conservation, rests near the commonplace image of a California grizzly.

The last update on the travels of whimsical bear ambassador Mi Ton Teiow focused on a meeting of zoo professionals working for the conservation of polar bears, and an earlier blog described how the American black bear illustrates that our efforts for the conservation of bears can succeed. We can also fail.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists the brown bear as a species of Least Concern, meaning that it’s not likely that this species will go extinct in the near future. That’s the good news. And now, the bad news: Even though this is the bear species found across the widest area and the most diverse habitats, and its global population is stable, some brown bear populations are in critical condition. It’s not yet clear whether the Gobi brown bear is a separate subspecies of brown bear or if it’s a population of Himalayan brown bear, but it is clear that the Gobi brown bear is in trouble, with a population of less than 30 individuals due to various impacts of human activities. Conservation and research efforts are underway, but in the face of long-term changes in climate, there’s no guarantee of success.

The Cantabrian brown bear in the Pyrenees Mountains of Europe has been the focus of long-term intensive conservation efforts, but it is still not certain if those efforts will be successful. Other regional populations of brown bears are also the focus of conservation efforts, such as the grizzly bears in the northern Rocky Mountains of the US, but ironically, all around me in San Diego are symbols and images of a bear that once was but never will be again: the California grizzly.

This street sign reminds us that this developed landscape was once good habitat for the California grizzly.

This street sign reminds us that this developed landscape was once good habitat for the California grizzly.

Ambassador Mi recently traveled to the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, which is headquartered at the Beckman Center for Conservation Research near Bear Valley Parkway. Bear Valley was named for a famous male California grizzly, a species that has been extinct since around 1924. Yet images of the California grizzly are common and widespread throughout California on the state flag and the state seal. In addition, many people wear clothes bearing (yes, pun intended!) the image of a California grizzly. Many sports teams use the California grizzly as a mascot, and many places are named for it.

The California grizzly faced challenges common to other bear species: habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, and high mortality due to unsustainable hunting and deaths due to real or perceived conflict and competition with the modern human economies. Unfortunately for the California grizzly, its populations crashed before modern conservation thinking, science, and planning developed to the point where people in the western US were willing and able to prevent its extinction. When the last California grizzly died, we lost this bear’s value as a part of the functioning ecosystem, and we lost a wonderful product of evolution. If it still survived, the California grizzly would be a symbol of our willingness to share existence with a large carnivore, but when it went extinct, most of us did not recognize the value of large carnivores. We recognize those values now, don’t we?
There is absolutely no doubt that there would have been disadvantages to living near California grizzlies. The negative aspects of living among bears are often forgotten by urban dwellers, as those stories fade with the passage of time and changes in lifestyles. What we’ve remembered are the positive traits and values we project on the bear, so that now the California grizzly lives on only as a cultural cartoon. Can we prevent another bear from becoming a cartoon of a ghost?

Russ Van Horn is a scientist with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

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Polar Bears, Climate Change, and Mi (Ton Teiow)

Tatqiq's wild counterparts need more snow days.

Tatqiq’s wild counterparts need more snow days.

Mi Ton Teiow, the whimsical “bear” ambassador for the IUCN’s Bear Specialist Group (see post A Whimsical Bear Ambassador Arrives), has continued his travels, along with staff from the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research. With these travels, Mi is gaining experience in the multi-faceted world of bear conservation, which often includes extended periods of sitting and talking! While Mi might be anxious to get outside and do field research, our bear ambassador also understands that bringing people together to discuss the nuts and bolts of bear conservation is an important, and necessary, part of the process.

Recently, Mi traveled to the Toledo Zoo to sit in on the annual meeting of the Polar Bear Species Survival Plan (SSP). The role of the SSP (for polar bears or any other conservation-dependent species) is to bring together experts from zoos around the country to ensure that the members of the zoo community are being as effective as possible in supporting conservation efforts for the species. The focus of this SSP meeting was to enhance the synergy between zoo-based research, field-based research, and effective polar bear conservation. Speakers from the U.S. Geological Survey and researchers from the San Diego Zoo, Cincinnati Zoo, and Memphis Zoo presented overviews on current research and results, as well as ideas for the future.

Mi (center) and Megan (standing second from the right) pose with other members of the Polar Bear SSP.

Mi (center) and Megan (standing second from the right) pose with members of the Polar Bear SSP.

While listening in on discussions regarding conservation research, Mi also learned about the primary threat to polar bears: greenhouse gas emissions resulting from human activities have led to measurable and rapid changes in global climate patterns. The degree and character of these changes is not uniform, and different regions, ecosystems, and species are being impacted in different ways. When it comes to climate warming, scientists have documented the greatest degree of warming at the Earth’s polar regions.

This is bad news for the polar bear, because increases in both air and ocean temperatures in the Arctic have resulted in rapid losses of sea ice over the past several decades. Polar bears depend on the sea ice for their survival. Without the sea ice, polar bears cannot feed themselves or reproduce successful. This dependence on sea ice has left polar bears vulnerable to extinction in the face of climate change.

While the situation is critical for polar bears, it is not hopeless. Each and every one of us has the ability to help save polar bears by making small changes in our daily lives, such as turning off unneeded lights and riding our bikes more, to reduce our carbon footprint along the way. Because zoos have tremendous access to a large number and wide range of people, we play a critical role in polar bear conservation. As a conservation organization, we are responsible to get the word out, and we are happy that we were able to share our work with ambassador Mi Ton Teiow.

Megan Owen is an associate director for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.
Read about Ambassador Mi Ton Teiow’s previous adventure in Black Bears: A Conservation Success.

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Whimsical Bear Ambassador Arrives

Ambassador Mi travels the world in an effort to aid in the conservation of bears.

Ambassador Mi travels the world in an effort to aid in the conservation of bears.

There are eight bear species living today, and, until recently, the San Diego Zoo hosted ambassadors for five of them. We’re happy to announce the arrival at San Diego Zoo Global of another bear ambassador: Ambassador Mi Ton Teiow, also known as Traveling Bear. Ambassador Mi represents all eight living bear species as the special traveling ambassador of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Bear Specialist Group (BSG). As such, Mi travels “to gain worldly experience and aid in bear conservation endeavors” and to promote the conservation of bears.

Ambassador Mi was “born” in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic and has since traveled to Canada, South Korea, India, Venezuela, and the US (Minnesota). Mi was officially posted to the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research (ICR) at the recent conference of the International Association for Bear Research and Management in Utah, and plans are underway for Mi to travel with our staff both internationally (China, India, and Peru) and within the US before traveling to Greece in October 2014. This bear gets around!

Although you may never have heard of the IUCN or the BSG, these are among the most credible international groups for the conservation of wildlife, and bears. The IUCN is the world’s oldest and largest global environmental organization, composed of more than 1,200 member organizations, including more than 200 governmental and 900 nongovernmental organizations. The BSG is one part of the IUCN, and it is made up entirely of more than 200 volunteer scientists from around the world. Several of our scientists are part of the BSG in various Expert Teams, including Ron Swaisgood (co-chair, Giant Panda Expert Team), Megan Owen (member, Captive Bear Expert Team), and Russ Van Horn (member, Andean Bear Expert Team). Many Institute staff members belong to other Specialist Groups within the IUCN (e.g., the Iguana Specialist Group, the Tapir Specialist Group), providing technical advice and mobilizing action for the IUCN as it works to “find pragmatic solutions to our most pressing environment and development challenges.”

Ambassador Mi Ton Teiow of the BSG was officially posted to the delegation from the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research on 17 September, 2013. From left to right: Megan Owen (ICR, BSG), Lorraine Scotson (BSG), the author, Ron Swaisgood (ICR, BSG), Barbara Durrant (ICR), Dave Garshelis (BSG), and Emre Can (BSG). Photo credit: Dr. Mei-hsiu Hwang, National Pingtung University of Science & Technology and the Taiwan Black Bear Conservation Association

Ambassador Mi Ton Teiow of the BSG was officially posted to the delegation from the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research on September 17, 2013. From left to right: Megan Owen (ICR, BSG), Lorraine Scotson (BSG), the author, Ron Swaisgood (ICR, BSG), Barbara Durrant (ICR), Dave Garshelis (BSG), and Emre Can (BSG).
Photo credit: Dr. Mei-hsiu Hwang, National Pingtung University of Science & Technology and the Taiwan Black Bear Conservation Association

Now, all of this probably sounds pretty bureaucratic, dry, and abstract, which might be part of why you can’t remember ever hearing of the BSG or the IUCN in spite of their conservation significance. However, given Mi’s colorful personality, willingness to put up with inconvenient travel without complaining, and hardiness in the face of harsh field conditions, we hope you’ll find Mi’s adventures to be enjoyable, memorable, and educational about bear conservation. Mi’s earlier travels have included a visit to the den of an American black bear, participation in technical scientific conferences, representing the BSG at the World Conservation Congress during a debate on curtailing bear farming, hiking to the highest point in South Korea, and waterskiing. Welcome to San Diego Zoo Global, Ambassador Mi Ton Teiow!

Russ Van Horn is a scientist with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, Andean Bears and Their Favorite Food: Sapote.