I realized today that I haven’t blogged about a species of bear yet. There’s a lot of mammal groups I haven’t written about, but bears are large and silly-looking, so I feel bad that I’ve neglected them for so long. Today I’m going to remedy that by discussing a perhaps lesser known bear species, the sloth bear.

Sloth bears live in and around India, ranging from Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh to Sri Lanka. They are tropical bears, and prefer to live in areas with forests or grasslands. Sloth bears also like places with rocky areas, because they hide in caves during the day.

A sloth bear sitting funnily.  Source: Zigmund Leszczynski/National Geographic
A sloth bear sitting funnily.
Source: Zigmund Leszczynski/National Geographic

These bears are probably some of the funniest looking bears on the planet. They have long, shaggy fur, despite the fact that they live in warm tropical areas. One suggestion for this fur is that this fur acts like loose clothing and help keep the bears cool, while other theories propose that sloth bears may be particularly sensitive to cold stress and the long fur helps keep the bears warm. So I think the real answer to the question ‘Why do sloth bears have such ridiculous fur?’ is this: we don’t have a clue. Sloth bears have large feet with 4 inch long claws, and are gangly for bears. Their faces are relatively hairless, and they have wide nostrils and a flexible lower lip that is crucial to the feeding habits of the sloth bear. Sloth bears can weigh up to 140 kg, with males being heavier than females. They stand up to 90 cm at the shoulder.

Sloth bears eat a variety of different foods, including fruit, insects, leaves and flowers. One of their favourite things to eat is honey, and they will go to great lengths to get it. Another preferred food of sloth bears is termites. The bears use their massive claws to break open termite mounds, then blow puffs of air into the mound to clear away dirt. The next part of the sloth bear feast is quite remarkable – the bears place their faces into the mound, position their lower lips to make a vacuum and then suck. Sloth bears are missing their upper incisors, so the termites just fly right into the bear’s mouth. The bears can also open and close their nostrils, to avoid dirt from entering their nose. The sounds of sloth bears feeding and sucking up termites can be heard almost 200 meters away.

Sloth bears reproduce between May and July, though Sri Lankan sloth bears mate all year round. Bears give birth to one to two cubs, and very rarely three. Cubs spend four to five weeks in their den before hanging out with their moms for the next two to three years. The cubs ride on the mother’s back until they’re too big to fit, and stay on when the mother runs or climbs.

A sloth bear carrying its young on its back. Aren't they adorable?  Source: BBC
A sloth bear carrying its young on its back. Aren’t they adorable?
Source: BBC

Sloth bears are surprisingly agile for their strange shape – they can gallop faster than a running human, and are adept climbers. They only climb to feed and rest, not to escape predators (which include tigers). They can hang upside-down from branches, which gives them the name sloth bear (the original discoverers of the sloth bears originally thought it was a species of sloth). When confronted by danger, sloth bears prefer to stand and fight, which has led to numerous aggressive confrontations with people. Sloth bears are also good swimmers, although they only really swim for fun.

Due to habitat loss and hunting, sloth bear numbers have decreased drastically in the last little while. Traditionally sloth bears have been captured and trained to perform, because they have a reasonable docile nature (when not threatened). Sloth bears were the original dancing bears. Still, recent bans on trading sloth bears and conservation areas hope to preserve this species. Let’s cross our fingers that it works!

Cover image source: http://beartrust.org/sloth-bear

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