Perhaps one of the least-known of the bear species in the world is also classified as an endangered animal. It can be found in one particular part of the world and has a couple of fascinating and distinctive characteristics.
In this article, you’ll discover some of the most interesting facts about the sloth bear (Melursus ursinus), an interesting animal that displays remarkable feeding behavior for a bear.
1. This type of bear is native to the Indian subcontinent
Sloth bears are one of the 8 different extant bear species in the world and are native to the Indian subcontinent. There are 2 recognized subspecies of this bear based on their range:
- The Indian sloth bear (M. u. ursinus)
- The Sri Lankan sloth bears (M. u. inornatus)
The subspecies living in India is considered to be the nominate species and the main difference is that it’s larger than the one living in Sri Lanka.
This doesn’t mean that they solely live in India and Sri Lanka, though, because these bears are also found in Nepal and possibly in Bhutan. Unfortunately, they are extinct in Bangladesh.
These animals prefer forested areas and you won’t find any of these in the upper parts of the Himalayas as their upper elevation limit is considered to be 2,000 meters (6,561 feet).
2. Sloth bears are myrmecophagous animals
These animals are myrmecophagous bears which means their diet consists mostly of termites and ants. That’s quite a difference compared to the dietary habits of their much larger family members, the brown bear, and Polar bear.
This also means that they are perfectly adapted to locate termites and ants using their sense of smell. Once they have located a suited hill they scrape it until they uncover the unfortunate creatures and start sucking away.
Their sense of smell is so strong that they can locate their food about 1 meter (3 feet) below the ground.
In case they are unable to detect food, they also might feed on other things such as fruits, plant matter, and even carrion or other mammals (even though that’s extremely rare).
3. Their most distinctive feature is their lower lip
Perhaps the most incredible behavior is the fact that they can suck up ants and termites. Their distinctive lower lip, similar to that of sloths, is used to make this happen.
Their feeding behavior is quite noisy as well. While they are sucking up the insects, often in combination with a good amount of dirt, it can be heard from up to 180 meters (590 feet) away, quite amazing.
These animals are surely sugar mouths as well and can’t resist the taste of honey, not uncommon with bears.
4. These are wary animals for a very good reason
Even though these animals mostly feed on insects and fruits, they do possess canine teeth that are relative to the overall body size of all other types of bears.
Even though these aren’t ferocious predators, they can make good use of those to defend themselves. Even though elephants and rhinoceroses form a permanent threat for these animals, there’s one particular animal they should be particularly wary of at all times.
Bengal Tigers, one of the biggest wild cats in the world, are known to actively prey on sloth bears. Some individuals have perfected their hunting technique as well as they simply wait near the biggest termite hill in the area for the unsuspecting bear to arrive.
Even though Bengal tigers are much larger than sloth bears, they usually don’t continue the fight in case they can’t launch a successful surprise attack.
The main reason is the fact that their canine teeth and extremely sharp claws can cause serious damage to the tiger, something they are quite wary of themselves.
5. These bears are listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List
Even though sloth bears are legally protected through the Indian Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, the population of this bear is still decreasing.
It’s estimated that less than 20,000 individuals live on the Indian subcontinent and in Sri Lanka today. The main reasons for their decreasing numbers are habitat loss and destruction. This means that these bears are listed as “vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List.
Luckily, these bears are present in most of the major zoos around the world, and in India, multiple sloth bear sanctuaries have been established as well.
More interesting facts about sloth bears
6. This type of bear diverged quite a long time ago from other bears in the family Ursidae. It’s estimated that they already looked the way they do today in the early Pleistocene, a period that lasted between 2,580,000 to 11,700 years ago.
It’s pretty certain, though, that they reached their complete evolution while living on the Indian subcontinent. Their evolutionary tract shares a lot of characteristics with other ant-eating mammals as well.
7. These are far from the largest bears in the world as they are considered to be medium-sized. Their size and weight can vary quite a bit, though.
They usually stand between 60 and 92 centimeters (2 and 3 feet) tall at the shoulder and have an average body length of between 1.4 and 1.9 meters (4 feet 7 inches and 6 feet 3 inches).
Their weight fluctuates even more as females weigh typically between 55 and 105 kilos (121 and 231 lb) and males between 80 and 145 kilos (176 to 320 lb).
8. These bears have dense fur that is completely black except for a Y or V-shaped marking on their chest. This feature is sometimes not even present in the Sri Lankan subspecies which means they may be completely black as well.
9. Even though these bears appear to be slow and clumsy, they can actually run quite fast and can even sprint faster than a human.
They also have extremely long claws that can reach a length of up to 10 centimeters (4 inches). These are not only great tools to defend themselves but also allows them to easily climb trees.
10. Another distinctive characteristic of this type of bear is its long tail which can reach a length of between 15 and 18 centimeters (6 and 7 inches). This is the longest of all 8 types of bears in the world.
11. The breeding pattern differs between the two subspecies. In India, they only mate in April, May, and June, and give birth in December or January. In Sri Lanka, this occurs all year round.
The gestation period lasts about 210 days and the cubs are born completely blind. They only open their eyes after 4 weeks as well, around the same time that they start walking.
The cubs become independent around the age of 24 to 36 months. Until they reach about 1/3 of the size of their mother, they simply ride along on her back as she moves around.
12. Perhaps one of the most remarkable facts about these bears is that even though they are considered to be one of the most aggressive bear species in the world, they can actually be tamed and kept as pets.
Even though this was banned in 1972, sloth bears were often used as “dancing bears,” a form of entertainment that dates back to the 13th century.