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A day to celebrate the “honey bears”

By Jordan Schaul

On Thursday, July 15, 2010 the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) will highlight the sun bear (Helarctos malayanus) as its Red List species of the day.

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The IUCN is the largest network of academic scientists, government agencies, and NGOs collectively working to promote the conservation of nature and natural resources. The organization is also responsible for the development of the Red List of Threatened Species, a comprehensive status that highlights species threatened with extinction, The species of the day reports synthesize comprehensive assessments of the conservation status of imperiled fauna into succinct “data fact sheets.”


Sun bears are so named because of the bib-shaped patch on their chests, which legend says represents the rising sun. Read more facts, see a photo, and listen to a sun bear on the National Geographic sun bears profile page.

NGS stock photo of sun bear by Bates Littlehales

Not much is known about the sun bear, not much at all. In fact, as recently as 2002, my colleague Siew Te Wong, reported in the journal Ursus that for this species, the least known of the eight living species of bears, there was a paucity of information regarding its basic biology, including food habits, range, and reproductive biology.

In this paper, he and his advisor, grizzly bear biologist Chris Serveen, and another colleague, described the food habits of Malayan sun bears in the Ulu Segama Forest Reserve in Sabah, Malaysia. Siew has gone on to publish more research on the ecology of sun bears and will soon defend his dissertation.

But there is much to learn and time is running out.

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Zoos in North America have been working against the clock to better understand the reproductive biology of the lesser known species of bears, with an emphasis on Asia’s most threatened species, including Bornean sun bears (Helarctos malayanus euryspilus), a subspecies of the mainland population.

In an effort to develop a healthy and sustainable captive gene pool of mainland and Bornean subspecies, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Sun Bear Species Survival Plan (SSP) program, coordinated by staff at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo, has carefully developed a cooperative breeding program among zoos holding sun bears.

The Bornean sun bear is the only recognized subspecies of sun bear, and an isolated population restricted to the island of Borneo. In 2004 the first Bornean sun bear cub to be born in North America was born at the San Diego Zoo.

In 2006 my colleague, Suzanne Hall, reported that a second Bornean sun bear had been born at the San Diego Zoo, followed by twins in 2008. This was a decade after breeding stock were imported from South Asia. Suzanne Hall is the senior research laboratory technician for the Giant Panda Conservation Unit (GPCU) of the Applied Animal Ecology Division/San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.


Making a public debut at San Diego Zoo in March, 2009, were these two sun bear cubs, Pagi and Palu. Read more at Tiny sun bears introduced to public at San Diego Zoo

Photo taken March 16, 2009, by Tammy Spratt, San Diego Zoo.

In a 2009 paper published in Ursus, the Institute’s Giant Panda Conservation Unit detailed the development of a Bornean sun bear neonate and the corresponding maternal care [behavior] of its mother. The study indicated that these bears were found to be more like giant pandas than like hibernating species such as grizzlies (brown) or black bears [that actually exhibit carnivoran lethargy]. One implication of the study was that females demonstrate a need to leave the den for food before the cubs are old enough to follow their mothers.

I share a poster presentation below from the San Diego Zoo’s Giant Panda Conservation Unit to illustrate how we rely on more well known species of bears as reference models to study the ursine species that are much less well known and in many ways more vulnerable to extinction.

For example, Siew Te learned to study grizzlies in Montana to prepare for the study of the more elusive sun bears in dense jungle habitat of his homeland. Similarly, Dave Garshelis, the co-chair of the IUCN’s Bear Specialist Group utilized his extensive knowledge of American black bears in North America to help him study the population dynamics and ecology of Asiatic black bears and sun bears in Asia.

bear-poster.jpgOccasionally nicknamed the “dog bear” because they resemble large dogs, these small bears attain only 4 feet in length and average 100 pounds. Some males may weigh 145 pounds.

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Sun bears are stocky, pigeon-toed and often mistaken for American black bear cubs when seen in zoos. Adults are quite aggressive, although people continue to poach sows with cubs, hoping to profit from young animals by introducing them into the pet trade. Although habitat degradation strongly impacts the future survival of the sun bear, the pet trade compromises conservation efforts.

Sun bears will feed on insects, snails, birds and reptiles and their eggs, along with other small mammals on occasion.

These bears, the smallest members of the family Ursidae, use their long tongues to extract honey and termites from trees. Hence, they are also known as “honey bears,” but the name sun bear reflects the white chest markings that are visible when they stand up on their hind feet.

Sun bears are highly frugivorous, preferring fruits from the Moraceae, Burseraceae and Myrtaceae families.

Researchers like Siew Te Wong, now the CEO of the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center, a rehab facility for confiscated pet bears, have spent much time researching the ecology of sun bears in Malaysia, focused on population management efforts.

It is not uncommon for scientists to assist with the plight of individual animals, in this case realizing the need to rehabilitate the orphaned animals and remove them from a life in a household where they will grow to become most destructive and ultimately dangerous.

I remember caring for four confiscated pet sun bears at a zoo in the Midwest and can attest to the fact that these little guys are not only very messy, but destructive and at times volatile. As mentioned, sun bears grow up to make horrible, unruly pets despite looking “cute.”

In conclusion, I should add that 30 percent of known sun bear habitat has disappeared in the last 30 years. The primary reasons for such extensive habitat loss are illegal timber extraction (for hardwoods) and the clearing and conversion of habitat for palm oil plantations.

Listen to a radio interview with Siew, myself, and my co-host, actress and wildlife conservationist Sandra Dee Robinson: Zoo Talkin’ Radio (BSBCC Blog, WildlifeDirect).


Jordan Schaul is a conservation biologist and a collection curator with the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. He received his PhD in veterinary science from The Ohio State University and a Master’s Degree in zoology. Jordan pursued a clinical degree in veterinary medicine prior to returning to his interests in husbandry science and conservation and ecological health. He serves as a council member (ex officio) of the International Association for Bear Research and Management (IBA) and as an advisor to the Bear Taxon Advisory Group of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Jordan also serves as the Correspondent Editor and Captive Bear News Correspondent for International Bear News (IBA/IUCN SSC Bear Specialist Group). Most recently, he joined the Advisory Council of the National Wildlife Humane Society.

The views expressed here are those of Jordan Schaul and not necessarily those of the National Geographic Society.