Andean bear


Yummy Honey for a Bear’s Tummy! Andean Bear Chows Down on Delicious Honeycomb at the San Diego Zoo

Turbo, an Andean bear, enjoyed a special treat—honeycomb harvested from a hive on the edge of Zoo grounds.

Turbo, an Andean bear, enjoys a special treat—honeycomb harvested from a hive discovered on the Zoo grounds.

Turbo, an Andean bear at the San Diego Zoo received a special treat this morning. The energetic and curious bear entered his habitat to find several pieces of honeycombs filled with delicious honey. Each piece was strategically placed around his enclosure, so Turbo had to do a little bit of work to get to them. Crowds watched as he climbed, crawled and pulled to get a taste of the sweet treats. After a few minutes of eating, he took a break to walk around and explore his enclosure. Animal care staff says he will continue to go back and eat the honey throughout the day.

“We strive to match our animals’ natural ability to an appropriate challenge,” said Jessica Sheftel, Animal Care Supervisor for Enrichment. “We don’t want it to be too easy or too frustrating, but sometimes it can take multiple days for an animal to problem solve a situation. If, however, it does prove to be a little difficult, we can take a step back and then begin to approximate and increase the challenge.”

The honey is used as an enrichment option, which is important for bears at the Zoo. The honey, as well as the process of getting to each honeycomb piece, keeps him stimulated and active, and allows him to show natural behaviors.

The honeycomb pieces were harvested from a 12-foot hive that was found inside a sound barrier on the edge of Zoo grounds. The Zoo’s Entomology team spent a whole day removing the extensive hive and preparing the bees for their new home with a local beekeeper. The process of removing the hive and safely relocating the bees is a part of San Diego Zoo’s commitment to conservation.

“Pollinators are in decline globally, and we are committed to their conservation here at the San Diego Zoo,” said Paige Howorth, animal care manager for invertebrates. “We have a pollinator garden to attract native bees and butterflies, and a monarch butterfly habitat to encourage monarch reproduction. Honey bees are important pollinators too, so whenever we encounter a swarm or colony in a questionable place on grounds, we do our best to relocate it.”

Andean bears come from the Andean countries of South America. They are commonly known as spectacled bears because of the rings of white or light fur around their eyes. Their populations are vulnerable to extinction, due to poaching and habitat loss. Those who want to help San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy lead the fight against extinction can find out how by visiting endextinction.org.

Bringing species back from the brink of extinction is the goal of San Diego Zoo Global. As a leader in conservation, the work of San Diego Zoo Global includes on-site wildlife conservation efforts (representing both plants and animals) at the San Diego Zoo, San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, as well as international field programs on six continents. The work of these entities is inspiring children through the San Diego Zoo Kids network, reaching out through the Internet and in children’s hospitals nationwide. The work of San Diego Zoo Global is made possible by the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy and is supported in part by the Foundation of San Diego Zoo Global.

Photo taken on September 10, 2015 by Ken Bohn, San Diego Zoo


Favorite Andean Bear Food: Sapote

Some of these sapote flower buds may develop into food for Andean bears, Sechuran foxes, and other wildlife.

Some of these sapote flower buds may develop into food for Andean bears, Sechuran foxes, and other wildlife.

In conservation research, we’re often interested in measuring variation across space and time, looking for patterns in that variation and deriving explanations for those patterns. However, during my last trip to the field, I found myself pondering changes over time on a much longer scale, across over 1,000 years. As I walked under the hot sun dragging a tape measure through the brush day after day, and I started stepping over ancient stone walls, it was easy to start wondering about the original purpose of the walls, even though that had nothing to do with the task at hand!

What I should have been totally focused on was making sure that we were correctly measuring the distances between trees in the tropical dry forest of northwest Peru. As part of the Andean bear conservation program, I was there working with the Spectacled Bear Conservation Society and with local citizen scientists (see post Citizen Science: Engaging People in Conservation Research). With support from the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund, Samantha Young and I have been developing several initiatives to engage local people in conservation science and action (see Scientific Concepts for Non-scientists). One focus of my trip was to train citizen scientists in collecting data from woody plants, because we’re interested in knowing more about how plants that are important for Andean bears vary in space and time. In particular, we’re interested in understanding the variation in when and where sapote produces flowers and then fruit, because sapote fruit appears to be the critical food source for Andean bears in the dry forest of northwest Peru (see Andean Bears: A Surprising Discovery).

To get information on the sapote population, we measured little trees...

To get information on the sapote population, we measured little trees…

Although sapote is considered critically endangered, there have not been many studies done on its reproductive ecology, so we can’t simply visit a field site and estimate how much fruit the sapote trees there might produce or how many bears might be supported by those trees. So, our goal is to collect information every month, such as which trees have flowers, which trees have fruit, and the condition and size of those fruit. Because we don’t have any background information on these sapote trees, we’re going to learn something new practically every month. For example, during our first data-collection period we discovered some individual sapote with a few ripe fruit left from this past season and several new flower buds. I had no idea that the same tree might have both flowers and fruit at the same time!

...and we measured big sapote trees.

…and we measured big sapote trees.

Another new observation with more serious implications for bears and other wildlife that feed on sapote fruit is that sapote grows only in a narrow band on the lower slopes of the hills at the edge of the valleys. We knew this generally, but we had never measured the width of this strip; it’s much narrower than we thought, meaning that there’s less area covered by sapote trees than we expected, and, presumably, fewer sapote trees. Over the next several months, we’ll begin to get an idea of how many flowers and fruits those trees produce and how that production varies depending on characteristics of the sapote trees and the places where they’re living.

Although we’ll be looking at variation in flower and fruit production across relatively small-scale changes in space and time, especially in comparison to the scale of the landscape and the scale of human history in this area, these are the data we’ll need to understand variation in sapote and in Andean bear ecology.

Russ Van Horn is a scientist in the Applied Animal Ecology Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.


Building Conservation Foundation by Training Teachers in Peru

Teachers investigate a cactus at the Spectacled Bear Conservation Center.

Teachers investigate a cactus at the Spectacled Bear Conservation Center.

Forty-six! That’s how many teachers attended our recent environmental education professional development workshops, in collaboration with the Spectacled Bear Conservation Society, in Peru. That’s also the minimum number of classrooms that will be affected by the methods and materials that were discussed over the 10 days spent at the Conservation Center in Batan Grande, Peru. And it’s pretty safe to assume that each teacher has about 25 students. Hmm… 46 x 25 = 1,150. Maybe it’s a little premature to say we’ve touched the lives of over a thousand children and possibly their families, but I’m overly optimistic. It’s a pretty good number, if you ask me.

I work in the Conservation Education Division of the Institute for Conservation Research, the research arm of the San Diego Zoo. But rather than thinking about what I do as education, we like to think of what we’re doing in northern Peru, in support of the Andean bear conservation project, as capacity building. This is an approach to working with communities to enhance their abilities to allow them to achieve measurable and sustainable results. Having learned a bit about the communities over the last year and a half, I’ve come to know some of the modern challenges they face. It is my job to assist them in finding their potential and developing a “tool kit” for sustainable, improved living. This tends to have a measurable, positive impact on the forest and Andean bears. In this way, we are helping to address the human dimension of conservation.

Teachers in a small group discussion, with the education coordinator of the Spectacled Bear Conservation Society, Francisco Nolberto Aurich Terrones.

Teachers interact in small group discussions outside the Spectacled Bear Conservation Society.

Instead of a lot of lecturing by professionals and sitting and listening by students, we conducted the workshops in an inquiry and project-based learning format. Inquiry involves the quest to learn more about the things that interest us. Project-based learning directly engages participants through projects applicable to life outside the classroom. The workshop was also conducted as if the participating teachers were their own students in a classroom, similarly to how we conduct our summer teacher workshops at the Institute. Using these tools, we hope to increase their active engagement with students, encourage investigation of the things in which they are interested, and provide them with tools that they can use in their everyday lives. Actually, these workshops were modeled after the Earth Expeditions program offered in conjunction with Miami University of Ohio and the Advanced Inquiry Master’s Program (check out the new Earth Expedition going to Hawaii this summer and the new Advanced Inquiry Program being offered by the Zoo!).

Samantha, in front, poses with the first group of teachers at the end of Workshop 1, wearing their commemorative T-shirts.

Samantha, in front, poses with the first group of teachers at the end of Workshop 1, wearing their commemorative T-shirts.

Although there were some unanticipated challenges, I think it’s safe to say that overall the workshops were quite successful. Teachers were engaged. They asked questions. They were exposed to new methods and got up close and personal with the inquiry process, as well as the San Diego Zoo and the Spectacled Bear Conservation Society. We had guest speakers from the area and active investigations, and the teachers developed their own network of educators interested in conservation in the region. Teachers were also challenged to develop a conservation action project to implement in their village, tied in with the curriculum.

We will stay in contact and provide support and advice for these projects throughout the school year of March through December. And at the end of the year, we hope students will showcase their conservation projects in a festival celebrating community-based conservation to ensure that these great lessons make their way to the next generation.

Samantha Young is a conservation educator for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Can Cute Trinkets Save Andean Bears?


Andean Bears: A Surprising Discovery

A member of our collaborative field team watches a cliff for bear activity.

This summer my colleague Megan Owen and I were fortunate enough to have an intern working with us. Michael Forney was the John E. and Dorothy D. Helm Summer Fellow, working in our Applied Animal Ecology Division (see Summer Intern Enjoys Opportunities). He extracted behavioral data from videos of wild Andean, or spectacled, bears, living in the tropical dry forest of northwest Peru, where we work with the Spectacled Bear Conservation Society. Some of the videos were collected opportunistically by the field team, when they unexpectedly encountered a bear, and other videos were collected on a more systematic basis. There are more videos yet to review, but the preliminary results are pretty interesting.

These were the first behavioral data ever collected on wild Andean bears, and they delivered some surprises. For example, for most of the year the bears appear to lose weight, suggesting that there’s not enough food available. However, during the period of time when sapote fruit is available, the bears feed primarily on those fruits and appear to gain weight. We’d already seen this pattern, from different sources of data; however, Michael’s results suggest that dry forest Andean bears do not respond behaviorally to a feast and famine cycle like Northern Hemisphere bears would.

Sapote fruit: Does it dictate bear activity?

You may already know that American black bears and brown bears really focus on foraging during the period before they hibernate. Generally, these black and brown bears are driven to fatten up before the months when they won’t eat, so they spend as much time eating as possible. If Andean bears in the dry forest, which don’t hibernate but which do spend months with little food, behaved like these other bears, then you’d expect the bears in the videos to spend most of their time eating sapote fruit during the relatively brief period when it was available. However, Michael’s data show that adult females, with or without cubs, spend relatively little time eating, even when there appears to be a surplus of sapote fruit.

Why don’t these females spend more time feeding? We’ve generated a few hypotheses to address this question, but confirming this phenomenon and testing these hypotheses will require more data from more videos.

This is not just an abstract academic question, without relevance for the conservation of these bears. If weight gain among female Andean bears in the dry forest is constrained by sapote fruit availability, then perhaps an increase in the number of sapote trees would improve the body condition of the bears. However, if weight gain among these females is constrained by something else in addition to food availability, as might be suggested by Michael’s data, then increasing the number of sapote trees would not improve the bears’ body condition. Michael’s work reminds us that we have a lot to learn about Andean bears to further their conservation.

Unfortunately, we’ll have to pursue this question without Michael’s help, as he’s finished his internship with us and has gone south to put his talents to work in Ecuador. Thanks, Michael, and good luck!

Russ Van Horn is a scientist in the Applied Animal Ecology Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, Peru: Conservation Science at Local Level.


Summer Intern Enjoys Opportunities

Michael gets intimately acquainted with the inside of a giraffe’s mouth during a Caravan Safari at the Safari Park.

As a kid, I used to visit the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park every summer with my grandmother, so you can imagine my excitement when I was told I would be conducting research here as a summer fellow through the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research! Before arriving in June, I was contacted by my soon-to-be mentors, Russ Van Horn and Megan Owen, who outlined the details of the project I would be working on: collecting behavioral data from video footage of Andean bears.

Like many people, I had never heard about Andean, or spectacled, bears prior to this summer. So before traveling down to San Diego—I recently graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno—I made sure to read up on this often overlooked bear species. I didn’t find as much as you’d think. Surprisingly, relatively little is known about Andean bears, especially in the wild where it is often difficult to see them in the lush cloud forests they call home. Hence, the purpose of my project.

A camera trap still-frame shows an Andean bear mother and her cub resting in a tree in the Peruvian dry forest.

The video clips that I’ve inventoried and collected data from this summer were taken from a field site in Peru located in one of the few remaining tropical dry forests. The landscape allows for unparalleled viewing of the elusive bears and the chance to gain greater insight into Andean bears’ daily activity patterns, mother/cub interactions, and other behaviors. For further information on this project, see The Bear Necessities in Peru.

In addition to being involved with an amazing project that is drawing attention to the conservation of this threatened species—the Andean bear is listed as Vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List—I have had a chance to witness the tremendous conservation, research, and animal-care efforts put forth by the entire staff here. Some of my experiences include:

• Watering over 10,000 native grass seedlings at the Skinner Reserve in Temecula (I can’t tell you how many watering cans I refilled and carried over two days.)
• Monitoring Bai-Yun and her new cub in the video room (The cub is definitely cuter than it was a few weeks ago if you haven’t seen it yet.)
• Visiting the Zoo’s Jennings Center for Zoological Medicine while the veterinarians and technicians treated Houdini, the Zoo’s female Andean bear.
• Feeding a giraffe on the Park’s Caravan Safari (If you haven’t seen their tongues, they are incredibly long and quite slobbery)

Michael checks things out at the Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey.

This summer has provided me with so many unique and wonderful opportunities and experiences. I would recommend interning with the San Diego Zoo to anyone interested, especially with regard to the summer research fellowship opportunities. All you have to do is check out the San Diego Zoo job search site around the beginning of January when they post the applications for the Institute fellowships.

In a few weeks I will be leaving for Ecuador to volunteer teaching English, but I know I will always remember this summer. I hope to share some of the information I’ve learned about the bears with the children I meet, since they are fortunate enough to have Andean bears in their country, and perhaps volunteer with local conservation groups. While I’m down there, if I’m lucky I might just be able to catch a glimpse of an Andean bear!

Michael Forney is a summer fellow for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.


Scientific Concepts for Non-scientists

My new friends at a primary school in Batan Grande.

“How was your trip to Peru?” everyone and their mother asked me upon my return (see post, Assignment: Peru and Its Bears). I’m not complaining, but it’s hard to distill the trip down to one or two sentences, so I just tell everyone “It was amazing” (which it was). Though it was my first time in Peru, it was not my first time in a Spanish-speaking country, nor my first time devising plans with people I’ve never met, nor my first time explaining scientific concepts to a non-scientist. But it was really, really cool, if you don’t mind me saying so.

During this trip to Peru, I had conversations with children and adults about their thoughts on the nearby wildlife, items of importance in their daily lives, areas in which they would like assistance, and their present understanding of protected areas. I conducted 1,152 interviews and surveys with children, while visiting 11 primary and secondary schools, and speaking with another 111 adults in the communities. I might have had two English conversations the entire time I was there. I ate, slept, played, conversed, relaxed, danced, researched, and learned with the field team, their family, and their friends. They care deeply about the project at hand and have an amazing respect for the forest and the wildlife it contains.

Interviewing in the village of Papayo

The coolest part is that the Spectacled (Andean) Bear Conservation Society is comprised of locals, and the community trusts them. I’m slowly working on earning the trust of the people at the Center, and I hope they can help me earn the trust of the community. One such “trust-building exercise” consists of me constantly asking for the Spanish equivalent of a word. I have never used Spanish in a professional or scientific capacity before, and there is a whole new set of vocabulary that I must learn. Como se dice… ? and Que es la palabra para…? have become well-worn phrases. I can now say with certainty, in Spanish, que el silvestre del bosque seco necesita nuestra ayuda (that the dry forest needs our help!).

Being that it was the dry season, and I was in a dry forest, you can only imagine that it was not very wet. The small amount of water people subsist on in this area during this time is quite incredible. But what was most apparent about the communities in Rio La Leche is that they are very receptive to learning about and protecting the forest. While they are a bit disengaged from the wildlife and are focused instead on agriculture and immediate survival (not at all shocking, given the prevalence of poverty locally), they do have incredible knowledge and appreciation for what the forest provides them, from medicine and food to oxygen and construction materials. I am optimistic that local knowledge and their receptivity to new ideas will combine to help ensure the success of our Andean bear conservation project.

After surveys had been completed, the children of the only school in the village of El Algarrobito posed with me for a photo. Perhaps it’s a little more clear why they might have given me the nicknames “La Grande” and “La Gringa.”

I am now back in San Diego working on the myriad of projects that I want to develop in collaboration with these communities. This list includes seminars and discussions, teacher-training workshops, training citizen scientists for data collection, festivals celebrating the forest, field trips with school children and adults into the forest, and introducing solar cookers as an alternative method of cooking. Many believe the foundation of conserving wildlife is working with local communities. They provide us with something extremely valuable—local knowledge—and they are the future stewards of the land. In other words, if the locals don’t do it, it’s probably not gonna happen. That’s why, to me, this is well worth being bitten by chupasangres, giving up hot showers, and being honored with the nicknames La Grande and La Gringa.

Samantha Young is a conservation educator for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.


Andean Bear Sightings

Dimples in the sand show where Russ' sweat droplets landed.

As I stepped up onto the ledge and looked down the rocky trail, I realized that I needed to take a break. It was just too hot and dry for me to keep up with Javier and Isai, two parabiologists from the Spectacled Bear Conservation Society. We still had enough time to reach camp before it became too dark, so I stopped to catch my breath. As I stood there huffing and puffing, I noticed some dimples in the sand below me. It hadn’t rained for a long time, so what liquid could have fallen and created those dimples? After puzzling for a moment while looking down, I saw the answer as sweat dropped off my chin and fell to the ground: those dimples were made by me as I stopped in the same place to rest before dawn that day! We had walked up the trail while it was still dark, in order to be in a hiding place before dawn. We had then waited all day to see if and when an Andean bear (aka spectacled bear) would come to the waterhole.

Rinds left after an Andean bear fed on a sapote fruit

Most of the year this type of effort would be a waste of time. However, when the sapote fruit is ripe down in the valleys, the local bears often walk down from the hills to feed on sapote during the morning before returning to the hills before dark. On their way uphill, they often stop for a drink of water at one of the rare waterholes. Our most predictable opportunity to see a bear, and place a GPS transmitter on it, comes when we move in a pattern opposite to the bears and intercept them at the water.

A wild female Andean bear and her cub

As we walked to and from the waterhole for several days in a row, we saw evidence that bears were in the area. Sometimes we’d see partial tracks of bears, or else the rinds that bears leave behind after eating sapote fruit. Even better, we saw at least one bear on each of the nine days we spent waiting at the waterhole! Usually these were the same few bears, so in total I think we saw four different bears; twice the bears were too far away to identify with any certainty.

We saw the same female bear and her nearly independent cub come to the waterhole on eight of the nine days. This female’s behavior was different from that of females with very young cubs, which appear to avoid the waterholes as best as we can tell from data from GPS collars, camera traps, and direct observations. Perhaps mothers with young cubs act differently because their cubs cannot walk very far, or perhaps mothers with young cubs wish to avoid encountering adult male bears; we’ll need more data to better assess these two hypotheses. Meanwhile, I’m glad we have the opportunity, and the skilled field team, to collect those data. It’s also rewarding to see the bears!

Russ Van Horn is a scientist with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, leading our Andean bear conservation program. Read his previous post, Camera Trap: Bush Dogs.


Little Fruit, Thin Bears

This is a camera trap photo of the female Andean bear Magaly on December 7, 2009, when she was thin and in poor condition, before many ripe sapote fruit were available.

It was about 16 months ago when I first saw an Andean bear in the dry forest of Peru during the Southern Hemisphere winter. When I did, I was shocked. As this bear walked down the hillside toward a waterhole I could count her ribs, I could see her backbone, and I could watch her hipbones moving. Her fur was dull, and I could hardly believe how bad she looked. My colleagues had told me that the bears living in the dry forest were thin during the winter because there wasn’t much for them to eat, but I didn’t know the bears became THIN! The only other wild bear I have ever seen so scrawny was an American black bear I encountered many years ago in southwest Montana; that bear had become dependent on food it obtained from people, and it began starving when it no longer had access to the supplemental food.

This is a camera trap photo of the same female Andean bear, Magaly on April 29, 2011, after she’d become plump by feeding on sapote fruit.

When I expressed my concern over the skinniness of the dry forest bear to the field team of the Spectacled Bear Conservation Society (SBC), they told me that they had seen bears in the dry forest that looked even worse than the bear I was watching but that had nevertheless survived. In reality, I was shocked only because I didn’t have much experience in the dry forest; that bear was not unusual. She not only survived, but she mated a few months later and is now raising a young cub. Skinny dry forest bears look shocking to people who don’t have experience in the dry forest, but in fact their weight loss is part of a natural cycle that becomes obvious to anyone who studies dry forest bears for more than a year.

This is a portrait of nearly ripe sapote fruit still on the tree when there were ripe sapote fruits lying on the ground beneath the tree, and when bears were foraging on sapote fruits. We hypothesize that fruits like this one are critical for the survival of individual bears, and the bear population, in the dry forest.

Working with SBC in the dry forest, we’ve accumulated evidence over the last several years that Andean bear movements and body condition are linked to a species of tree, the sapote. Evidence from direct observations, camera traps, and satellite telemetry collars all suggests that bears focus their movements and foraging on sapote fruit when it is available, which is usually only for two to three months just before the annual rainy season.

After ripe sapote fruit become available, usually beginning in late November, the bears’ body condition improves noticeably, so that within a few weeks the bears no longer look like walking skeletons. After a few more weeks of feeding on sapote fruit, the bears start to look a little plump, although they never get as fat as American black bears and brown bears do in autumn. During the rest of the year when sapote fruit is not available, Andean bears in the dry forest gradually lose weight so that they are skinniest just before the sapote fruit is ripe. These observations strongly suggest that healthy populations of sapote trees are critical for the health of individual Andean bears in the dry forest and for the health of the dry forest bear population. The sapote tree is considered critically endangered by the Peruvian government, so we’re promoting conservation of sapote trees as part of the Andean bear conservation program.

A camera trap photo shows male Andean bear Russ on December 5, 2009, when he was thin and in poor condition before many ripe sapote fruits were available.

This is a camera trap photo of the same male Andean bear, Russ, on March 21, 2011, after he’d gained weight by feeding on sapote fruit.

The field team is seeing something unusual right now that may answer a question that’s been puzzling me for over a year. Young cubs and subadult bears often disappear when their mothers are skinniest, shortly before the sapote fruit ripens. We suspect that, unfortunately, when adult bears have a hard time finding food, many young bears do not survive. If that happens year after year, how can the population of bears in the dry forest remain stable? This year some sapote fruits are ripe earlier than normal, and some bears are starting to gain weight earlier than usual. This makes us hopeful that this year more cubs and subadult bears will survive. Of course, the survival of youngsters may depend on what the sapote trees do over the next few months, which reminds me of other questions we have. Why do sapote trees produce fruit when they do? What influences how many sapote fruits are produced? There has been a little research done on these questions, but we’ve still got some work to do to fill in the blanks!

Russ Van Horn is a scientist with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, leading our Andean bear conservation program. Read his previous post, Mountain Lions and Palm Trees.

For more information about the seasonal fluctuations in resources such as sapote and the need to conserve them, see posts Dry Forest Bears of Peru and To See a Bear.


Vegetarian Bears?

Here is what is left of an an epiphetic bromeliad eaten by an Andean bear.

May 16 to 22, 2011, is Bear Awareness Week, and we hope you’ll join us in celebrating these amazing animals. Today we focus on Andean bears.

What is the role of the Andean bear, also called the spectacled bear, in its environment? That is a good question! The answer is not well known, and it definitely depends on which Andean bear population you’re talking about.

Andean bears use a wide range of habitats, ranging from alpine habitats above treeline through humid cloud forests and transitional montane forests to dry tropical forests. Because each of these habitats varies in its complexity, and because the bears’ range extends from the border of Columbia and Panama south to northern Argentina, the bears’ role in its environment also varies. Wherever they live, though, they’re thought to be primarily vegetarian.

Because the bears forage on a variety of forest fruits when they’re available, and because each bear might travel a long distance each day, Andean bears have often been thought to be important seed dispersers. That means that they ingest the fruits and seeds in one place, then transport them to another as they go about their bear business, before depositing them with a little bit of fertilizer. This would generally be thought of as beneficial to the plants, because the seeds would have a better chance of growing up without competing with their parents. The importance of Andean bears as seed dispersers has not often been well tested, but if they are important seed dispersers it is probably for plants whose fruits and seeds are too large and heavy for other animals to transport.

Andean bears are known to forage on a wide variety of bromeliads that live on the branches of trees, and on the ground above treeline. When they eat bromeliads, bears tear them apart to get at the fleshy core, similar to how humans eat artichokes. Now, being torn apart is not likely to be any more beneficial to a bromeliad than it is to an artichoke, but no one has yet investigated the impact of bear foraging on bromeliad populations. In places in the cloud forest, most tree limbs are liberally covered with bromeliads, so perhaps the bears are not in danger of running out of food.

A fruiting sapote tree offers tasty treats for Andean bears.

In the dry tropical forest of northwest Peru, the role of Andean bears as seed dispersers, and the role of bears as consumers of plants, may be enhanced because in the dry forest there are not many alternative foods for the bears to eat. Bears congregate every year when the fruit of the sapote tree is ripe and focus their energies on consuming these large fatty fruits filled with seeds. These fruits and their seeds are also consumed by a wide range of birds and other mammals, including the Sechuran desert fox, but each bear can consume more fruit and travel farther than each fox, making it possible that the bears play a vital role in distributing the seed of the sapote tree.

Here are the remains of a pasallo tree after an Andean bear has shredded its trunk.

It’s a little harder to evaluate the impact of the dry forest bears on the pasallo tree, which they turn into woodchips. The bears don’t just peel back the outer bark to feed on the inner bark, or to feed on insects—the bears actually eat the wood itself! Amazingly, it appears that a pasallo tree that has been exploded by an Andean bear is often not killed. The pasallo resprouts and regrows. This must be an energetically expensive process for the pasallo trees, and it seems as though there must be a negative effect on the pasallo population, but apparently healthy populations of pasallo survive.

We’re in the process of planning research to investigate more closely the interactions between the bears and their primary food sources, so hopefully in a few years we’ll better understand how the bears benefit from their various food sources and how the plants are impacted by the bears. We’ll keep you posted on our progress.

Read more about San Diego Zoo Global’s conservation work with bears…

Russ Van Horn is a senior researcher for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, Andean Bears: 30 Years Later.


Save the Bear

A sun bear displays her impressive tongue.

May 16 to 22, 2011, is Bear Awareness Week, and we hope you’ll join us in celebrating these amazing animals. While you learn more about bears, please take the time to reflect upon the challenges all bears face in wild and learn all that you can about what you can do to make a difference to help conserve bears. At the San Diego Zoo, we are passionate about bear conservation, and we’re excited to share with you our current research efforts, as well as an overview of the challenges that free-ranging populations of bears face around the world.

The bear family (Ursidae) currently consists of eight species, seven of which are conservation-dependent species (the sole exception:  the American black bear). Each conservation-dependent species inhabits a very different habitat, has generally evolved to exploit a particular resource niche (which may change seasonally), and has evolved a number of striking adaptations that have enabled them to take advantage of the unique foods they eat and the habitats in which they live.

While each bear species has evolved, over thousands of years, to cope with the various natural challenges to survival found in their environment, they all face extreme challenges to their persistence in the wild due to the impacts of human populations and the rapid pace of environmental change due to human activities. While humans impact the environment in a variety of ways, ultimately it is one single factor that poses, by far, the greatest threat to the persistence of all wild bear populations: HABITAT LOSS. From great polar bears roaming the vast Arctic sea ice to diminutive sun bears dwelling in the tropical rain forests of Southeast Asia, suitable habitat is being lost or fragmented at an alarming pace. Climate change, resource extraction, and human population growth have all contributed to habitat losses. But, while these challenges may seem daunting, the reality is that if we can change our habits, reduce our carbon footprint, and make conscientious changes in how we buy and use products, we can reverse these trends, and we can save the world’s bears.

Historically, hunting was the greatest threat to all bear species. Unregulated hunting had dramatic impacts on population numbers for bears worldwide, especially in the first half of the 20th century, when a lack of regulation was coupled with enhanced access to bears (through motorized vehicles) and more efficient weapons. In the 1970s, the impact of hunting on some species, such as the polar bear, impelled wildlife biologists and managers to develop science-based harvest quotas that, over the years, served to stabilize polar bear populations. However, the unregulated “take” of wild bears continues in some parts of the world, and bear parts and the pet trade have continued to take their toll on a number of Asian bear species (except the giant panda).

Just as the impact of hunting on most bear populations was minimized through the efforts of people, so, too, can the impacts of habitat loss and climate change be reduced. We can all make a difference, and the first step is to get passionate about bears and bear conservation. A great place to start? The San Diego Zoo!

Come visit Kalluk, Chinook, and Tatqiq (polar bears); Montana, Scout, and Blackie (brown bears); Marcella and Francis (sun bears); Bai Yun, Gao Gao, and Yun Zi (giant pandas); Houdini and Tommy (Andean bears); and Ken and Bhutan (sloth bears). They are all great bear ambassadors. After visiting the wide array of bears at the San Diego Zoo, I have no doubt you’ll be inspired to turn off your TV, ride your bike (or walk) instead of driving, and carefully read product labels!

Find out more about the bear research the San Diego Zoo is actively engaged in…

Megan Owen is a conservation program specialist at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Love is in the Air.