Sloth Bears

The sloth bear is thought to have evolved early in the Pleistocene Epoch (approximately 1,800,000 years ago). There are 2 subspecies: The Indian sloth bear Melursus ursinus ursinus and the Sri Lankan sloth bear Melursus ursinus inornatus.

The origin of their name isn't totally certain. One theory is that early explorers named them after seeing them hanging upside down from trees, similar to actual sloths. Another is that they were named after the slow wandering manner in which they walk.

Sloth Bear - Melursus ursinus inornatus

The sloth bear is native to the subcontinent of India. The Indian sloth bear inhabits forested and grassland regions of India, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Bhutan. The Sri Lankan sloth bear is found only on the island of Sri Lanka in lowland forests. Sloth bears are not very competitive over territories, though they are known to leave markings on trees with their claws and teeth. They might also leave their feces at the base of trees. Tree markings are most common around breeding season, however, and may have as much to do with mating as with claiming territories.

The average range of females is 3 square miles, and the average range of males is about 5 miles. In the north eastern states of Assam and Mizoram, their range overlaps that of the Malayan sun bear. Also, at the base of the Himalayas, their range overlaps the range of the Asiatic black bear. Their present range is somewhat the same as it has been in the past. However, over time, they have become much more isolated to smaller, fragmented areas within that range.

Sloth bears have a long shaggy, black coat with a dirty white or yellow V shaped marking on their chest, similar to that of the sun bear and the Asiatic black bear. Their face is covered with much shorter hair including their long muzzle which is a dirty white or grey. The hair is longest and thickest behind their ears and on the back of their neck. The color and texture of their coat may vary with the seasons. Their thick coat helps protect their skin from insects. Another asset is that it exaggerates their size to predators. The Sri Lanka sloth bear has much shorter hair than Indian sloth bear.

Sloth Bear Sloth bears have small ears, and they are not good at hearing nor seeing. However, like other bears, they have an excellent sense of smell. Male sloth bears can grow to be over 6 feet in length, measure 3 feet at the shoulders when standing on all four, and weigh from 175 to 310 pounds. Females are approximately 67 percent the size and weight of males.

The sloth bear's front legs are longer than its hind legs. Their front paws are turned inward and their toes are webbed together with the padding on the bottom of their paws. They have long, curved claws that are up to 3 inches long. All of these features are great assets when digging for ants and termites.

At early an age sloth bears lose their 2 front upper incisors, creating a very useful gap through which they can suck insects. To add to their sucking power, they have a long tongue, a concave palate, and can extend their lips beyond their nose. In addition, they are capable of closing their nostrils at will to prevent inhaling dirt when sucking up insects. The sloth bear makes so much noise sucking up insects that it can be heard up to 300 yards away.

Most sloth bears will run away when hearing and or smelling people. However, they will often become so focused on what they are doing that they don't notice the presence of others until they are encountered. When they feel threatened, they will often try to bluff their enemy by charging them, then stopping short, standing on their hind legs, roaring, and displaying their enormous claws. If this doesn't work, they will turn and run. Though they are not aggressive by nature, female sloth bears can be extremely vicious in protecting their young. Sloth bears can usually defend themselves quite well with their claws. Even though they are excellent climbers, they do not climb trees to escape danger. This is because some of its predators, such as the leopard, can climb trees just as well.

Like other bears, sloth bears are solitary animals except during breeding season and while females are raising their offspring. They are also nocturnal creatures in general. However, a female sloth bear with her offspring may often be seen at various times of the day to avoid nocturnal predators. They have no need to hibernate, but will retreat into caves or hollow tree trunks during long rainy periods.

Sloth Bear Cub

Although the sloth bear feeds mainly on termites and ants, it is considered omnivorous because it will eat carrion if other food is scarce. Its diet also consists of fruits, berries, grasses, seed pods, flowers, yams, eggs, honey, insect larvae, and other insects. Because the sloth bear's diet is composed of such a large variety of things, there is usually a plentiful supply of food available. In addition, the sloth bear's only competition for ants and termites is the pangolin.

Being excellent climbers, sloth bears will often climb trees to shake down fruit or invade a bee hive. Sloth bears can be committed when it comes to getting what they want. They will turn over rocks and logs and dig as deep as 5 feet to feed on large underground insect colonies. They will also continue eating honeycomb until it is completely gone, even when crying in pain from being stung by bees. Sloth bears do not fish, hunt, or graze.

The sloth bear reaches sexual maturity at 3 to 4 years of age. The mating season for sloth bears usually occurs between April and August, during the hottest time of the year. The exact time varies, depending on the specific region. In Sri Lanka, for example, mating has been reported year round. During the mating season, the sloth bears are often very vocal and will frequently engage in play fighting.

After mating, the gestation period lasts from 6 to 7 months. The mother will then give birth to usually 2 cubs in a small underground cave. The weight of the hairless cubs averages between 10.5 and 17.5 ounces. They are blind at birth, and remain so for 2 to 3 weeks. The mother will remain in the cave with the cubs for the first 6 to 10 weeks, living mainly on her body reserves. When the time comes to leave the cave, the cubs will ride on their mother's back to and from the feeding grounds. The mother bear will usually carry her young in this manner for about 6 months, until they are almost a third her size. The cubs usually remain under their mother's care for 2 to 3 years.

The number of sloth bears has continuously declined over the years. Their total population is estimated to be between 7000 and 10,000. As with most wild animals, the greatest threat to their existance is destruction of their habitat. Because of human encroachment, they are often lured into raiding crops and, therefore, are hunted by farmers. In addition, sloth bears are killed for their bile which is used in traditional medicines. Cubs are also captured by Kalandars or gypsies and used as performing animals.

Sloth bears in captivity have lived as long as 40 years. However, their average life span in the wild is thought to be closer to 20 years.

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