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sloth bear

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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.

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Busy in Bear Canyon

Sun bear cubWhew! It’s been a whirlwind of activity for the bear staff at the San Diego Zoo! Now that the dust has settled, it’s time to take stock and admire our handiwork.

I suppose the list of activities must start with the breeding of our polar bears. JoAnne has already written several detailed blogs about that activity, and perhaps we will be hearing the pitter-patter of little bear feet up at The Plunge. Kudos to those of you taking JoAnne up on her challenge to write about your carbon footprint reductions; there is no better way to help the polar bear! (Read JoAnne’s blog, The Polar Bear World.)

Next on our list of new activities was the release of our sun bear cubs to the exhibit. Pagi (pronounced “PAA-gee”) and Palu (“paa-LOO”) took charge of their new space, exploring every inch and climbing high, as sun bears are wont to do. (Read Suzanne’s blog, Sun Bears: Adieu to the Den.) In the wild, these bears sleep and forage high in trees, enjoying fruit and shade and quiet places to rest. Their long claws and small bodies make climbing a snap, and even the littlest sun bears find it second nature.

Next up was the celebration of Bear Bonanza, a four-day event culminating on Sunday, March 22. Researchers and keepers alike were kept busy giving talks on bears, providing extra enrichment, giving special tours, and manning information booths throughout the affair. The crowds were good for the event, though we were a bit disappointed to have rain on Sunday. Nonetheless, our sun bear cubs put on a show, and the grizzly bears had a blast with their mock campsite exhibition. That one was a real crowd pleaser, as Scout and Montana mangled food storage bags left carelessly about by “campers” who were not very bear aware. Not to be left out, the polar bears had snow over the weekend, and anyone who has seen them play in the snow knows how entertaining that can be.

After the weekend, we introduced a new sloth bear to the canyon. Keesha explored her new exhibit space for the first time on Tuesday, and she did very well. She was cautious and moved slowly about her space, taking everything in. By day two she was comfortable enough to clear her food immediately upon release to the exhibit in the morning. I was happy to include Keesha in the bear translocation study that our other sloth bears had participated in. Come see Keesha, whose extra-fluffy coat and short legs set her apart from her brothers Ken and Bhutan. (See Suzanne’s blog, Ken: Sloth Bear Extraordinaire.)

What’s on the horizon for bear staff? Panda estrus, we hope. Thus far, we haven’t seen much to indicate Bai Yun is ready to go, but long-time readers of our blogs will recall that in 2007 Bai Yun didn’t mate until nearly mid-April, and she showed little signs of her readiness until the day of the matings. We are not surprised, then, to have no indications from her at this time. And yet we are on our toes and reading her signs daily. (Read our giant panda blogs.)

And the cycle continues: we are back to the pitter-patter of bear feet. Will it be polars or pandas? Both? Neither? It’s never a dull moment for the bears or the staff entrusted with their care and research. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do!

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

Watch pandas and polar bears daily!

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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.

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A New Bear On the Block

Slurp, slurp.

What’s that sound? If you are in the San Diego Zoo’s Bear Canyon over Thanksgiving weekend, you may be hearing the sound of our newest bear resident feeding. Our sloth bear will go on exhibit tomorrow, and he adds an interesting new dimension to our resident bear population.

Sloth bears feed on insects and have special adaptations to aid them in their foraging. They have ample, loose lips to create a type of “straw” for suction and a gap in their front teeth to allow them to suck things up into their mouths easily. They are so effective at creating suction that it is said you can hear them slurping as far away as the length of a football field! Come test this factoid yourself: can you hear our sloth bear from the bottom of Bear Canyon?

I learned today that sloth bears can use their incredible suction-creating modifications for another purpose; if agitated, the bear can turn that gap-and-straw into a powerful phlegm-spitting tool, much like that of a camel. Might not want to look cross-eyed at our new bear when you visit!

Named Buddha, our new sloth bear is an eight-year-old male who came to us last month. He will begin his life at the San Diego Zoo by inaugurating a new research study the Giant Panda Conservation Unit will begin with his arrival on exhibit. This is the first in an intensive line of work we hope to do with his species because, like the other rare bears in our collection, little is known about sloth bears. We hope to be a factor in changing that reality for these fascinating, shaggy bears.

Sloth bears are another bear species listed as vulnerable to extinction, like the sun, Andean or spectacled, and polar bears in our collection. Sloth bears are native to India and surrounding areas, but have been largely eradicated from many parts of their historic range due to habitat destruction and encroachment by humans. Sadly, sloth bears are also at risk of poaching, and females are often killed to capture infant bears, some as young a few days old. These cubs are often bound for the dancing bear and pet trade, where they meet a sad fate of pain and humiliation to earn money for their keepers.

But Buddha is far from the darker side of the sloth bear world, and he is here for you to admire and learn about. Come see his marvelous long claws, used to extract termites from their nests. Notice his long, shaggy coat, an adaptation that allows cubs to grip better as they ride –yes, ride- on their mother’s back. And be glad for the moat between you and he, because sloth bears are well known to be among the most dangerous of bears.

Welcome, Buddha bear! And Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Suzanne Hall is a senior research technician at the San Diego Zoo.