Andean (Spectacled) Bear
- Class: Mammalia (Mammals)
- Order: Carnivora
- Family: Ursidae
- Genus: Tremarctos
- Species: ornatus
Better to see you with! The Andean bear of South America is also known as the spectacled bear for the rings of white or light fur around its eyes, which can look like eyeglasses (or spectacles) against the rest of the bear’s black or dark brown fur.
These markings often extend down the chest, giving each bear a unique appearance and helping scientists identify each bear by its "mug shot". The markings also give the bear its scientific name: Tremarctos ornatus, or decorated bear.
As a midsize bear, Andean bears are between four and six feet long, and stand two to three feet at the shoulder. Males are 30 to 50 percent larger than the females.
Say what? Andean bears are thought to use vocal communication more than any other bear except the giant panda. They make unique vocalizations that are quite "un-bear-like": a shrill screech and a soft, purring sound. Mother bears may use different vocalizations to communicate with their cubs.
HABITAT AND DIET
Although this bear is typically diurnal, very little is known about them in their native habitat, as they are shy and tend to avoid humans, making them hard to find for scientists to study! The bears are native to the Andean countries from Venezuela to Bolivia, living in forests, grasslands, and scrublands.
Andean bears are true arboreal bears, using their long, sharp front claws to climb and forage for food. As they search for food in the forest, Andean bears live an arboreal lifestyle. They sometimes build leafy platforms in the trees, both in the wilderness and in zoos, which they may use to sleep and to feed. Because food is available year-round where they live, Andean bears are active year-round and do not spend months inactive in dens, as do American black bears or brown bears.
Salad, please. Andean bears are omnivores, known to eat more than 300 different kinds of plants and over 20 kinds of animals. The most common items in their diet appear to be plants, especially fruits, palms, and bromeliads. Bears living in scrubland habitat are even known to seek out snails and to eat cacti! Sometimes these bears feed on dead livestock and they will sometimes hunt cattle, which causes conflict with farmers. The bears also pose challenges for people when the bears raid cornfields.
While mostly solitary, Andean bears may gather together to eat where food is plentiful, such as a cluster of trees bearing fruit or corn ripening in a farmer's field. Eating so much fruit helps these bears play an important role in forest ecology: the seeds they eat are excreted in their droppings as the bears move around, spreading the seeds over long distances for the production of the next generation of fruit trees throughout the forest.
At the San Diego Zoo, the Andean bears eat biscuits made for zoo omnivores, apples, carrots, grapes, yams, bananas, oranges, and lettuce. They occasionally eat crickets and mealworms.
Curious cubs. A female gives birth to one, two, or rarely three cubs in an isolated den, but very little is known about how a female chooses her den. All maternal dens discovered so far have been like nests, on the ground or in cavities below rocks. Like other newborn bear cubs, Andean bear cubs are helpless and totally dependent on their mothers. Cubs first leave the safety of the den when they are about three months old. It is not known how long the youngsters stay with their mother, but it is believed that the cubs are over one year old when they venture out on their own.
An uncertain future. Like too many wildlife, Andean bears are at risk of extinction. The biggest threats to this bear come from humans, directly or indirectly. The main threats to Andean bears are habitat loss and fragmentation, conflict between bears and humans, and poaching. Andean bears are now protected by international trade laws, but they are still illegally hunted for their meat, fat, and body parts. No one knows how many of these bears remain. Andean bear habitat is being altered by climate change and destroyed for mining operations, lumber, and farming. Bear habitat is being lost at a rate of approximately two to four percent per year; the rate of loss is not slowing down.
The plan. Charismatic and easily recognized, the Andean bear is one of the flagship species of national parks in the Andes. A Species Survival Plan (SSP) is in place for this bear species, through the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance is committed to Andean bear conservation in Amazonia. Our work increases scientific knowledge about these bears to advance their conservation, to train and mentor Peruvian conservationists, and to promote an understanding that the bears are worthy and integral parts of a healthy ecosystem that is essential for all.
Our collaborative work is currently focused on the Manu landscape of southwest Peru. There, we work with governmental agencies and non-governmental agencies responsible for managing lands inside and outside of Manu National Park, on the east slope of the Andes Mountains above the Amazonian lowlands. Our work also involves biologists from universities in the United States and from Peru as we conduct the science needed for this bear's conservation while supporting Peruvian conservation science.