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sloth bear behavior

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Ken: Sloth Bear Extraordinaire

I had an opportunity last week to continue work on our ursid translocational stress study (see blog, Thanksgiving with Sloth Bear Buddha), by incorporating a new animal into our data collection: a sloth bear named Ken. He was moved out on exhibit in the San Diego Zoo’s Bear Canyon for the first time on Friday, February 27. Ken is an impressive animal, a good-sized bear with a long, shaggy coat that gives him the appearance of permanent “bed head.” He has a lot of energy, and I wondered if he would take his move to the exhibit space in stride.

And he did very well. Ken left no stone unturned in the first several hours of his time on exhibit. He cleared all of his food in a matter of minutes. He sniffed everywhere. He dug big holes, enough to sink his whole head and shoulders into. He broke off a piece of the climbing structure. What a bear!

When you watch Ken in action, you may get to see some of the interesting things that make sloth bears unique. His really long claws are well suited to their natural diet of insects, and tearing at termite mounds is a cinch with such treacherous toenails. He has a gap in his front teeth that, among other things, allows him to blow a focused puff of air out of his mouth really hard, an adaptation that helps him to clear dust and debris so that wriggling insects are more exposed to him. He also uses that gap to make an interesting vocalization, a type of Bronx cheer that he has been known to use to greet Zoo visitors! And why does he have such a long coat? It is thought to be an adaptation very useful for female sloth bears that carry their young on their backs. Long hair is easier for their cubs to grip, and they can hold on better while mom travels long distances looking for food.

You may recall the arrival of Ken’s brother, Bhutan (formerly named Buddha), late last year. These two boys had been housed together for many years at a private ranch in Tennessee. However, as they aged, they started to become aggressive to one another, and they cannot share an exhibit today. As such, Ken and Bhutan will rotate time on exhibit, with one bear greeting our Zoo guests while the other enjoys some quiet time in an outdoor sunroom behind the scenes. We have another sloth bear, a female named Keesha, who is currently in quarantine at our veterinary hospital. In a few weeks she will join our boys in Bear Canyon, adding a feminine dimension to our opportunity to study this vulnerable species.

We are very fortunate to have five of the eight living species of bear at the San Diego Zoo and hope that you have the opportunity to come and see them all sometime soon. March is the month we will celebrate bears with San Diego Zoo Discovery Days: Bear Bonanza (formerly Bear Awareness), and it’s a great time to learn more about all things bear. Come see Ken, Bhutan, and all of our other rare and interesting bears sometime soon!

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician for San Diego Zoo Conservation Research.

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Thanksgiving with Sloth Bear Buddha

I hope everyone enjoyed their Thanksgiving, ate too much, and took a moment to reflect on the things they are most grateful for. This year I am thankful for my family, and especially for my new baby daughter at home. My Thanksgiving was a bit different this year though…instead of baking apple pies and other goodies to bring over to my family’s house, I was watching our new sloth bear, Buddha.

Thanksgiving day was his second day in his new exhibit, and we needed to be there to observe how he reacted to his new enclosure. As my co-worker Suzanne mentioned in her previous blog, A New Bear On the Block, Buddha will be the first participant in a new research study conducted by the San Diego Zoo’s Giant Panda Conservation Unit.

In this new study, we will look at how well pre-marking an animal’s enclosure with his own scent helps reduce a stress response to translocation. Often animals need to be moved from one enclosure to another, and we know that this translocation process can be a stressful experience. Therefore, we’re always looking for ways to reduce this stress response and promote well-being. So, if we pre-mark an animal’s enclosure with his own scent, will that ease the transition?

To test this, we divided Buddha’s exhibit in half, marking one side with his (previously collected) feces and fur, and leaving the other side as our control without his scent. Then we observed his behavior. Would he show a preference for the side that contains his own smell? Would he still demonstrate the typical stress-related behaviors? Or would he calmly explore his new environment?

On day one of the study, Suzanne observed some interesting behavior. I, unfortunately, didn’t observe much on day two. Buddha chose to spend most of Thanksgiving morning out of view in the back bedroom area. Not only was my data a bit uninteresting, but it was also pouring rain. I got drenched!

So, despite the fact that I would have rather been home celebrating the holiday with my family, at least we finished the first phase of this study. And the thing is, the bears (and all the animals at the Zoo for that matter) don’t care that it’s Thanksgiving. In this line of work we have to bend to their needs and schedules sometimes before our own.

We haven’t begun analyzing any of the data yet, but check back soon for an update on what we’ve learned from this interesting new study. And here’s hoping that the next phase of this study doesn’t fall on Christmas!

Pamela Crowe is a research technician at the San Diego Zoo.