Creature Feature: Sun bears

Imagine seeing an animal with slick fur, small ears, long tongue…is it a dog? But this animal also has super long claws and a golden crest on its chest…oh, it’s a sun bear! Sun bears (Helarctos malayanus) are the smallest bears in the world. They’re only about 4 to 5 feet long [1], like the size of a large dog. Their unique appearances earned them the nickname “dog bear,” but their real name refers to the golden crest marking on their chest. Although the crest looks like a rising sun, sun bears most active around dawn and dusk [7]. When they are active, they scavenge for fruits, insects, birds, and lizards [1]. 

Sun bears’ unique appearance earned them the nickname “dog bear”. [Photo Credit: Jacqueline Lee]

These bears have several unique characteristics that help them survive. Their short fur prevents them from overheating in their humid tropical forest homes in Asia. Sun bears are great climbers, and use their long claws to grip onto the branches [3]. While climbing trees to look for food, their 10 inch long tongue helps them reach into small spaces to devour an insect or honey from beehives [2]. 

Sun bears are suggested to be monogamous, which are animals that only have one mate at a time and form strong bonds with their family [1]. Sows, or mother bears, dig holes into the ground and use them as nests to give birth to one or two babies. Sun bear cubs are born blind and depend on being carried by their mothers for about two months. Mother bears walk on their hind legs (as humans do) while carrying their cub in their arms. Cubs will usually stay with their mothers for about two years after birth [3].

Sun bears matter because they keep the forest healthy. By using their four inch claws to dig for invertebrates (such as insects and worms) that live in the ground, sun bears mix the rich and poor quality soil which improves the cycling of nutrients through the forest [6]. To reach the honey in trees, they tear open tree trunks which creates perfect nesting sites for birds and squirrels to live in [6]. 

By using their extremely long claws, sun bears help keep their rainforest habitats healthy. [Photo source]

Tropical forests rely on the important roles that sun bears play, and because they are vulnerable, sun bears must be protected. The main threats to them are deforestation of forest trees, especially palm trees [3]. Since sun bears spend most of its time in these trees, they rely largely on the lush, dense rainforests, but much of it has now vanished as a result of increasing human activity like the mass production of palm oil. Many of the everyday products we use contain palm oil; lipstick, instant noodles, detergent, and chocolate are a few examples [5]. To help protect sun bears from losing their homes, you can support products that use sustainable palm oil. 

Other than habitat loss being a major threat to sun bears, they are still being hunted today for their gallbladders and are illegally kept in cages for pet trade. In China, sun bears’ bile from their gallbladders are used for traditional medicine. The milking of bile is done when they are alive, which results in a short lifespan for the bear [6]. Furthermore, because of the small size of sun bears, orphaned cubs are kept in small cages to be sold as pets [6]. From volunteering at the Oakland Zoo, I learned that one of the sun bears named Ting Ting was sold into the pet trade. After she was rescued and released into the zoo habitat, she demonstrated habitual behaviors of pacing around, possibly because she was used to being in a small cage while in the pet trade. 

Doesn’t she remind you of Winnie the Pooh? Just like the fictional bear, Ting Ting from the Oakland Zoo loves to sit back and enjoy a jar of honey. [Photo Credit: Jacqueline Lee]

Sun bears are truly special in every way; from their remarkable characteristics to keeping forests healthy, they are worth conserving. Although it is estimated that there are only about a thousand sun bears left in the wild, there are many organizations like the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center that work towards caring for them. We can do our part to help by using sustainable palm oil and educating others about the threats to sun bears. 


Jacqueline Lee is a senior at Amador Valley High School, and she hopes to study veterinary medicine at UC Davis in the future. She has been a Teen Wild Guide at Oakland Zoo for three years, and has grown an interest in being a veterinarian for zoo animals.


References: 

[1] Sun Bear: National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/facts/sun-bear 

[2] Sun Bear: Oakland Zoo. https://www.oaklandzoo.org/animals/sun-bear 

[3] Sun Bear: OneKindPlanet. https://onekindplanet.org/animal/sun-bear

[4] Malayan Sun Bear: Saint Louis Zoo. https://www.stlzoo.org/animals/abouttheanimals/mammals/carnivores/malayansunbear 

[5] Which Everyday Products Contain Palm Oil?: World Wildlife Fund. https://www.worldwildlife.org/pages/which-everyday-products-contain-palm-oil 

[6] Sun Bear Facts: Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center. https://www.bsbcc.org.my/sun-bear-facts.html

[7] Gouda, S., Chuahan, N. S., Sethy, J., Sahu, H. K. (2020). Daily activity pattern of Malayan Sun bear in Dampa Tiger Reserve, Mizoram, India. Journal of Wildlife and Biodiversity. 4, 56-64.

Main Cover Image by Jacqueline Lee

[Edited by Meredith Lutz]

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