September 20, 2010

Spectacled Bear

<em>Tremarctos ornatus</em>

The diminutive spectacled bear makes its home in the dense Andean jungles of South America, and it has the distinction of being the continent’s only bear.

Spectacled bears wear shaggy fur that is black, brown, or sometimes reddish. They are so named for the whitish to yellowish rings that encircle their eyes, resembling large eyeglasses. These lines, however, don't always fully encircle the eyes, and some individuals lack the markings altogether.

Spectacled bears, also called Andean bears, are among the smallest members of the family Ursidae. Males, which are significantly larger than females, grow over 5 feet (1.5 meters) in length and weigh up to 340 pounds (154 kilograms). Females rarely weigh more than 180 pounds (82 kilograms).

Intensely shy bears, they prefer the lush, isolated cloud forests on the slopes of the Andes, climbing as high as 14,000 feet (4,300 meters). They will descend to search for food though, and have been seen in widely differing habitats, from rain forests, to steppe lands, to coastal deserts.

Spectacled bears are generally nocturnal and are primarily vegetarian, harvesting fruit, berries, cacti, and honey. Highly agile climbers, they have been known to sit in a tree for days on a platform made of broken branches, waiting for fruit to ripen. They have extremely strong jaws and wide, flat molars to chew tough vegetation such as tree bark and orchid bulbs. Occasionally they will supplement their diet with meat, taking small rodents, birds, insects, and even small cows, making them the largest carnivores in South America.

Solitary animals, mature spectacled bears are normally seen together only during mating season. Females usually give birth to one or two small, helpless cubs, which are mobile after a month, but remain with the mother for up to eight months, often hitching a ride on the mother’s back.

Population data are sketchy, but some estimates suggest fewer than 3,000 spectacled bears may remain in the wild today. Their numbers suffer primarily from destruction and fragmentation of their habitat. Poachers also hunt them for their meat and body parts, and farmers kill them as agricultural pests. They are currently listed as vulnerable to extinction.

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