andean bear research


Training Andean Bear Field Crew

Meg, at left, conducts a field training session.

I recently spent several days in the dry forest of Lambayeque in Peru working with our collaborator Robyn Appleton and her field crew from the Spectacled Bear Conservation Society and with Dr. Meg Sutherland-Smith, a veterinarian from the San Diego Zoo. Our goals were to reinforce and enhance the field crew’s training in bear immobilization and, with luck, to illustrate everything by immobilizing a female Andean (or spectacled) bear and placing a GPS collar on her. The field crew had recently discovered the den at which a female bear (Pepa) had given birth. This is the fourth den found at this field site, and only the fifth ever described of wild Andean bears (one den was recently discovered in the cloud forest of Ecuador).

Because the cub was still quite young and not able to walk very well or very far, the mother bear was not moving very much in the weeks just before we arrived. However, by the time we were all assembled in the field and ready to go, so were the mother and cub. The cub was able to walk well enough that the two bears moved through terrain that was too steep for a safe immobilization. Rather than risk injury to the bear or the field crew, we decided to wait for a better opportunity in the future. Maybe we’ll have better luck next time!

Heavy fog in the valley of the Río de la Leche separates the Archeological-Ecological Park of Batán Grande (foreground) from the Laquipampa Wildlife Refuge (background).

Although we did not deploy another GPS collar during our visit, we did conduct training, and we did see bears every day from our clifftop overlook. We watched the female bear Laura using different routes to walk to and from one of the few permanent waterholes and walk up incredibly steep cliffs to feed on large land snails. We also watched Pepa eat snails and cactus while her cub complained that they were walking too much and nap in the shade on beds of vegetation that Pepa pulled together.

From where we were camped it was only a few meters to a rock outcrop from which we could look over a valley and see farms and villages along the river below. I’m half-deaf, so I couldn’t hear the noises of the villages below: the music on Friday and Saturday nights and the chickens and donkeys in the mornings. I could see, though, that there’s a risk that human development spreading from the river valley will isolate one mountain range from another, turning them into isolated islands of habitat. I think our work in the new protected area (Archeological-Ecological Park of Batán Grande) will prevent this from happening. If we succeed at this, I won’t mind that we didn’t put a collar on Pepa.

Russ Van Horn is a senior researcher for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, Notes from Observing Andean Bears.


What Are We Looking At, Anyway?

A small mammal in the cloud forest of southeast Peru.

Russ has been doing field research in various parts of Peru (see previous post Who’s Watching Whom?) to study Andean (spectacled) bears.

Even after looking at hundreds of remote camera photos, it’s amazing how difficult it can sometimes be to see which animal triggered the camera to take a photo. Sometimes I can only see the animal by looking at the sequence of photos in rapid succession and observing what moves or changes from one picture to the next. Other times, it’s easy to see the animal, because eyes often shine in the reflection from the infrared flash.

Even when the animal is easy to see, though, it’s not always obvious what I’m looking at. Many small mammals, in Peru and throughout the world, are hard for humans to tell apart from their exterior appearance. There’s no doubt they can tell each other apart, but we have to look at inconspicuous details, like how many cusps they have on a particular tooth. Since we’re not live-trapping small mammals, until I can find an expert to help me identify some of the species in the photographs, they’re going to remain mysteries. Perhaps you can help?

Russ Van Horn is a senior researcher with the .San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research.


To Smell a Bear

A physical examination of wild Andean bear named Chris.

Russ is studying wild Andean (or spectacled) bears in Peru and sharing his adventures with us. Read his previous post, 20 Liters Down, 5 Hours to Go.

I’m sometimes jealous of people who can describe how things smell, or taste. I know the same words that they do, but they truly understand how to use the words. If I could, I would describe for you what a wild Andean bear smells like. Instead, all I can say is that “Chris” smelled like a bear.

I’ve been familiar with the general smell of “bear” since I was a child, growing up in black bear country. Since then, I’ve been fortunate enough to smell black bears and brown bears across the mid-western and western United States, but this is the first time I’ve ever sniffed a wild Andean bear. Yep, Chris definitely smells like a bear!

GPS satellite radio collar, ready to be placed on Chris.

“Chris” is what the Spectacled Bear Conservation (SBC) team named this bear, but he would not respond if you were to call his name. Instead, he moves around the landscape in response to cues, signals, and motivations that we don’t yet understand. This morning, he came to the waterhole at 9:05 and turned his back on Javier Vallejos. Javier had been waiting for days for an opportunity like this and darted Chris with an injection of anesthetics. Once Chris was immobilized and his vital signs were stable, we replaced his GPS telemetry collar, gave him a thorough physical examination, and took measurements of his body.

A GPS radio collar is properly fitted to Chris’ neck.

Chris is an adult male bear, in breeding condition and in good physical condition. He’s been photographed on camera traps in the area quite often recently, so there was a good possibility that we could replace his collar, as its batteries were running low. The batteries on these collars last around 12 months, so by replacing his collar now we should be able to collect data on his movements for another year.

When he was darted last year, Chris had large blisters, or sores, on the pads of his feet. Robyn Appleton and her team can only guess that he’d worn down his footpads walking long distances on the rocky trails of the dry forest. This year, his feet are in good condition, which leads us to more questions: why were his feet more worn last year than this year; did he walk more last year than this year? If so, is this because he dispersed from his natal home range last year? Dispersal is the term for the process by which an animal relocates from one living place to another. A natal home range is the area where an animal was born. In most species of mammals, males disperse from their natal home range to a new area at around the time they go through puberty. In a few species of mammals, it is females that disperse, not males. The currently available evidence suggests that female giant pandas disperse but male giant pandas do not; male brown bears and American black bears disperse, but females of these species do not. No one has collected much evidence on whether it is male Andean bears or female Andean bears that disperse, but the probability is that males are the dispersing sex in this species. Were Chris’ blistered feet a clue as to whether male or female Andean bears disperse? Only time, and additional data collection, will answer that question.

We have additional questions on our agenda. We’ve seen and heard several bears in the area exhibiting behaviors that lead us to ask, is this the breeding season for Andean bears in the dry forest? If so, has Chris sired cubs? What determines whether one male sires cubs and another male does not? We can generate hypotheses to address these questions, but it will take a lot more work and data to test the predictions of these hypotheses and reach conclusions about the answers to our questions.

After we finished our physical examination of Chris, we moved him to a comfortable, safe place to recover. The last we saw of him, he climbed up a 10-foot-tall (3 meters) rock face and slowly walks uphill, out of sight into the dry forest. Forty-eight hours later, according to data transmitted by his new GPS collar, he’s 2.72 miles (4.38 kilometers) away, in an area with plenty of sapote trees, which produce fruits that bears in this area often eat. We, on the other hand, have moved less than 100 yards (91 meters), because we’re continuing to try to collar more dry forest bears. I wonder if the next one will smell like Chris?

Russ Van Horn is a senior researcher with the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research. We’ll be posting more about his trip every few days!


Andean Bears: Camera Trappers

Photo of a hind footprint of an Andean bear in the cloud forest of southern Peru.

Photo of a hind footprint of an Andean bear in the cloud forest of southern Peru.

It’s been a while since I’ve written a blog post (see Bear Culture). To be honest, I was waiting until I could include a remote-camera photo of a wild Andean bear! However, people keep asking me about the cameras (see post Andean Bears and Cameras), so I thought I’d provide an update now.

Due to logistical challenges, it took longer than I expected to place the cameras in Peru’s cloud forest last fall. I now understand well why no one’s done this before! However, one issue that I thought might be a challenge turned out to be no challenge at all.

The local people who worked with me to install the cameras in the forest have very little experience with electronic technology, so I wasn’t sure how fast they’d learn to use the cameras. Another challenge for them was that all the buttons on the cameras, and the programming menus, are written in English, which none of them speak or write.

Peruvian field workers with a camera trap in the cloud forest.

Peruvian field workers with a camera trap in the cloud forest.

I’ll admit that at first they didn’t understand what the different programming options were or what the buttons did. Neither did they have any idea of how to prepare a site in the forest for the best chance at obtaining good photos. However, after working with me to install only a few cameras, they were debating with each other, and with me, the fine points of site preparation and camera positioning. “No, it should be turned a little more to the left!” “No, I think it’s very good where it is.” “Use a little stick to raise the bottom – no, not that stick, use one that’s a little thicker.” This was an excellent reminder of something I realized as a child surrounded by older generations who did not have access to higher education: a lack of education does not mean a lack of intelligence.

There were three other promising signs:
– First, these gentlemen kept teasing me about how many bears would be photographed, and what the chances were that all the photos would be of bears’, um, derrieres, and not of their faces.
– Second, as they programmed each new camera installation, team members would look over each other’s shoulder, ready to applaud, and critique. However, each man was careful and thorough, and mastered the process at hand.
– Third, two men encountered a bear on the trail, in broad daylight, about 400 meters (1,300 feet) away from where the rest of us were debating whether we had achieved optimal camera placement. At first I didn’t believe that they had seen a bear, because they had been teasing me so much. However, when we went down the trail, there was no denying the evidence in the mud: fresh tracks of an Andean bear.

The field workers are changing the batteries and memory cards in the cameras every month until I return there in March to begin the next stage of the project. The photos from the first month of operation have been collected, downloaded, and sent to Lima, Peru. However, there are so many photos that they cannot be e-mailed to me! So, I’ll have to wait for a DVD to arrive in the mail. I wonder, I wonder, what is in those photos?

Russ Van Horn is a senior researcher with the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research.


The Bear Goes over the Mountain

Javier going to great lengths, as usual, to get his job done.

Javier going to great lengths, as usual, to get his job done.

San Diego Zoo researchers are in Peru to study Andean (or spectacled) bears. Read a previous post, To See A Bear.

We awake in the predawn twilight, rouse ourselves out of our sleeping bags, down some coffee, and head for the viewpoint, hoping to spot last night’s bear making the ascent back up from the waterhole. José begins to gesticulate wildly, pointing to a dark form moving slowly up the face of the cliff.

Through the binoculars I can make out the white spectacles surrounding the eyes and see his powerful forelimbs reaching out to gain purchase in some crevice or ledge. He stops at a large boulder and uses his huge claws to pry out a few snails, precious morsels of protein in this resource-limited landscape. Then, he is on the move again and, before I know it, he is at the top of the cliff, some 1,500 feet above the waterhole, and he disappears over the ridge.

The rough trails take their toll…on my boots. José does makeshift repairs on my boot after the sole was ripped off by the treacherous terrain. Boots last less than 6 months here—just one of the difficulties endured by this dedicated field team.

The rough trails take their toll…on my boots. José does makeshift repairs on my boot after the sole was ripped off by the treacherous terrain. Boots last less than 6 months here—just one of the difficulties endured by this dedicated field team.

Most bears are good climbers, but spectacled bears move more nimbly and quickly over steep terrain than any other animal I have ever seen. This ascent, taking just a few minutes, would take a person the better part of a day…with ropes. This opportunity to witness this bear’s remarkable athleticism is another reminder of just how well adapted these bears are to this rugged and challenging landscape. Fortunately, this ruggedness keeps this wilderness relatively remote from the impacts of nearby humans. But for how long?

Robyn points out the paths traversed by bears, and the way we will return.

Robyn points out the paths traversed by bears, and the way we will return.

The juxtaposition of this majestic wilderness so close to an expanding human population motivates Robyn’s team to do something, and fast. See post, Andean Bear Collaboration. This is why they are working with the local communities and government officials to try to raise awareness of this situation and, hopefully, bring some protection. This is also why we at the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research are joining this noble effort.

We spend a couple more days exploring the habitats of these remarkable bears before descending back down the mountain and back to civilization, and the welcome comfort of a shower and a bed. The end of an adventure, but the beginning of a collaboration we hope to continue for years to come. Understanding these bears, and finding ways to protect them, will require a long-term commitment.

Ron Swaisgood is director of Applied Animal Ecology for the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research.


Andean Bears: Back to Peru

Quincemil, District of Camanti, southeast Peru
I’ve returned to the cloud forest of southeast Peru, on the east slope of the Andes, between the cities of Cusco and Puerto Maldonado to continue my research on Andean bears. It’s good to be back. Things have changed in the area due to the construction of the interoceanic highway, but they haven’t changed as much yet as I imagined they would have, or as they will. I’ve encountered many familiar faces, but other people have moved on, looking for opportunities elsewhere. (Read previous post, Andean Bear Collaboration.)

There’s a construction boom in Quincemil, and several new restaurants have opened to serve the expanding market driven by construction of the highway. To my surprise, there aren’t nearly as many frogs calling every night; apparently this is their quiet season. Based on my past experiences here, I thought these frogs called every evening, year round! Fewer frogs calling make conversations easier, so I’m not complaining.

I’ve been told the growing human population sometimes overwhelms the recently repaired hydroelectric system, leading to rolling blackouts, but I haven’t experienced this familiar scenario yet this year. Just to be on the safe side, power consumption is reduced by leaving the street lights turned off, and I always carry a headlamp after dark.

This will be a short trip for me, and I’ll only spend about three weeks here. I have three primary goals for this trip to the field. First, I want to revisit some promising sites where we conducted reconnaissance during the latter half of last year. The maize crop in this area is almost completely harvested, and I’d like to see whether there is evidence of bears using areas where we didn’t find bear signs last year. Second, I’d like to talk again with local landowners to verify that they’re still amenable to the idea of having researchers working in the area. Third, I’d like to further pursue agreements with some communities for us to work on their lands. Without the consent or support of local people, this work, and bear conservation, cannot progress.

During this trip, I’m spending a bit more time than usual in Lima, the capitol of Peru. Like my goals in the field, my goals in Lima are aimed at forming a solid basis for future work. While in Lima on my way here, I met with two Peruvian biologists conducting research on bears in other parts of Peru, and I visited a potential collaborator at a university in Lima. I think there’s great potential for us to work together, and I hope we can have Peruvian students involved in the program within the next year. While in Lima I also did all that I could to ensure that our research proposal is ready for approval by the Peruvian government. Understandably, the government’s representatives need to verify that researchers are conducting scientifically valid, appropriate, and ethical work consistent with Peruvian and international law. Fortunately, I have the assistance of my collaborator’s (Botanical Research Institute of Texas) agent in Lima to help me with this process. I hardly understand legalese in English, let alone in Spanish!

Well, we need to start making arrangements for our next trip to the high country. Rumor has it we can pay for a lift in a pickup from a village on the main road to the village nearest to our destination. The last time we visited this place, however, the best we could do was rent a horse. Whether we start out with a few hundred horsepower, or the power of one horse, at the end we rely on our boots.

Russ Van Horn is a senior researcher with the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research.


Andean Bear Country

Looking back at four hours of hiking

Looking back at four hours of hiking

Russ Van Horn has been studying Andean bears in Peru. Read his previous blog, Andean Bears: Still Elusive.

By the time you read this I’ll be back in San Diego, trying to stay disciplined enough to practice my Spanish and begin learning a few phrases in Quechua. My Spanish is still weak, but my Quechua is limited to a dozen words, which I probably mispronounce.

During the time I spent in the area above Quince Mil, Peru, I repeatedly heard that every year the people living in the village of Quico have trouble with Andean bears raiding their maize. I’d also heard that the people of that area were much more traditional and conservative than people living closer to the main road. For example, the first, and preferred, language of the people of Quico is Quechua, not Spanish. So, it didn’t seem wise to just show up there before establishing a connection to the community.

A typical house in the village of Quico Chico

A typical house in the village of Quico Chico

By late November, we had the personal contacts and the time available to make the trip. It was a beautiful day’s hike from the main road to the village of Quico, but I was very glad that we’d rented a packhorse to carry most of our gear. After spending most of the last few months at below 2,000 meters (6,500 feet) elevation, the trail to 4,800 meters (15,800 feet) literally took my breath away!

Another day’s hike took us down into the next valley, below Quico, to a chain of small fields set in primary cloud forest. Once again, there were obvious differences in the vegetation between this forest and the other sites I’ve seen at the same elevation, not very far away. Because the corn in this watershed won’t be ripe until late June, the farmers told us not to expect to find much evidence of bears. However, after only a few hours in the forest above the fields, we found as much evidence of bears as we’ve found in all the other sites we’ve visited!

Fields, primarily for maize, in the cloud forest below Quico

Fields, primarily for maize, in the cloud forest below Quico

I guess I’d better spend a lot of time at the gym over the next few months, preparing my cardiovascular system for a return visit to Quico. I wonder if I can find some Quechua language audio lessons and multitask my way toward two objectives?

I’m not sure when I’ll return to Peru, but it doesn’t make sense to return as long as the rains are heavy in the south, and they last through March. I’ll post another entry when my travel plans are settled. In the meantime, thank you for reading these ramblings!

Russ Van Horn is a senior researcher for the San Diego Zoo.