- 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.
AT THE ZOO
The first three Andean bears at the San Diego Zoo arrived in 1938 as part of the Hancock Pacific Scientific Expedition. They were named Polly, Toby, and Punch. At the time, there were only two other Andean bears in human care. One of the three lived until 1958, establishing a longevity record of over 20 years for the species.
In 1986, two young Andean bears arrived at the Zoo. One morning before the Zoo opened, the little female found a very small opening, too small for a bear, or so it was thought, in a top corner of her indoor area. She climbed out, ran down the sidewalk, and jumped into a pool, which then held a 2,000-pound sea lion named Charlie. Both were so astonished at this unexpected meeting that they didn’t react to each other at all, so staff easily returned the bear to her own habitat. She never escaped again but was soon nicknamed Miss Houdini after magician Harry Houdini, who specialized as an escape artist.
Miss Houdini surprised us again in 1990 when she became one of the youngest Andean bears at a zoo to give birth. She was too inexperienced to keep her cub warm, so he was rushed to the area where staff cared for newborns. The cub was named Pepino, which means cucumber in Spanish, since he was as cold as a cucumber when he was found. He became the first Andean bear ever raised by wildlife care specialists from birth. Miss Houdini and her mate, Tommy, had more cubs over the years, including twins, and she proved to be a great mom. Their cubs grew and had cubs of their own.
The Zoo is currently home to a young female Andean bear named Alba, born in 2015; and a male named Turbo, born in 2010.
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.