The third week of May is dedicated to bears, and is known as Bear Awareness Week!
There are eight species of bears: Asiatic black, black, brown, giant panda, polar, sloth, Andean and sun bears, and they are all worth celebrating. No matter the species of bear, they all need our help. Six of the eight species are endangered or vulnerable to endangerment. They are poached for a variety of body parts or are farmed for their bile, which is used for medicinal purposes is a common practice in Asia.
However, the No. 1 threat to bears around the world is habitat loss. Transforming land to agriculture or other developments is a major problem. Currently, the Malayan sun bear is losing its habitat to palm oil plantations.
Each species easily can be recognized by their markings and size. A bear’s height is measured at the shoulders when they are on all fours.
Lee Richardson Zoo is home to two sloth bear brothers, Pabu and Namba. These bears are similar in size to the giant panda but typically weigh closer to 300 pounds. Sloth bears are native to Sri Lanka and India, extending north to the Himalayan foothills. Their mouths are specially designed for their diet of termites. They have flexible protruding lips and lack upper incisors, allowing their mouth to become an efficient sucking mechanism to extract termites from their mounds.
The animals got their name in the 1700s, when the hide of a sloth bear was brought to Europe with a description that the animal had a long “trunk-like” snout and often was found hanging upside down from tree branches. From this information, it was assumed to be a type of sloth and originally named as a “bear sloth.”
Polar bears are the largest species of bear with height measuring up to five feet tall and weighing up to 1,200 pounds on average. Polar bear fur appears to be white, but is transparent; they appear white due to light being refracted through their clear strands. Their fur can appear to be yellow, brown or gray, depending on the season and lighting.
Asiatic black bears are also known as the moon bear due to the crescent-shaped patch of white fur on their chests, while the rest of their fur is black. At the shoulder, adults can measure up to 40 inches, and adult males can reach up to 440 pounds. While all bears can walk or stand on their hind legs, the Asiatic black bears have been found to be able to walk upright for over a quarter-mile.
Giant pandas are native to a few mountain ranges in China but are known around the world for their distinctive black and white pattern. Generally, adult panda males measure at about 3 feet at the shoulder and weigh around 350 pounds. While all bears are in the same order, Carnivora, giant pandas eat primarily bamboo.
Southeast Asia is home to the sun bear, also known as the honey bear. Their fur is short, sleek and black, and a “v” or crescent shape is visible on their chest in a white or buff pale color. This species is the smallest of the bears, adults max out at around 27 inches at the shoulder and only reach about 180 pounds. These bears are known for using their long, sharp claws to tear open trees in search of honey and insect larvae. Once they discover a food source, they can use their long tongue, which can measure over 9 inches, to reach the contents inside.
Andean bears, also known as the spectacled bear, are the only bear native to South America. This bear has a short face and is mostly black and dark brown but can be identified by its beige colored markings on its face (like spectacles) and upper chest. Adult males can weigh up to 440 pounds and reach up to 30 inches in height. Andean bears are true arboreal bears; they use their long claws to climb and will build leafy platforms in trees to rest in.
North America and Eurasia are home to brown bears. While there are several subspecies of brown bear, many in the United States are most familiar with the Grizzly bear, which is also known as the North American brown bear. Adult male brown bears can reach close to 800 pounds and have an average shoulder height of over three feet and stand nearly 10 feet tall on their hind legs.
Black bears are the most common bear found in North America and while called a black bear, their fur is usually a dark brown, and their color can vary from cinnamon to gray, even in the same litter. Size for these bears depends greatly on location and subspecies.
Bears are important predators and seed dispersers in their ecosystem. No matter where they occur in the world, they fulfill a role that others cannot. We can help bear populations by purchasing sustainably made products and being bear aware, not only this week, but every day!
Emily Sexson is an education specialist at Lee Richardson Zoo.