The sloth bear (Melursus ursinus), also known as the labiated bear is a medium-sized bear species native to Indian subcontinent.
Sloth bears live mainly in tropical areas. They can be found in a variety of dry and moist forests and in some tall grasslands, where boulders, scattered shrubs and trees provide shelter.
They are more frequently found at lower elevations and seem to prefer drier forests.
At one time, scientists thought that this animals were “bearlike sloths”! They have many similar characteristics such as hanging from branches, the slow wandering manner in which they walk and carrying their babies on their backs.
There are two subspecies: the Indian sloth bear (Melursus ursinus ursinus) and the Sri Lankan sloth bear (Melursus ursinus inornatus).
The average lifespan of the sloth bear is estimated to be 20 years in the wild. Precise figures are unknown. Sloth bears in captivity have lived as long as 40 years.
Sloth bears are from 60 to 90 cm (2 to 3 ft) high at the shoulder, and have a body length from 1.4 to 1.9 m (4.6 to 6.2 ft). Females are smaller than males.
Adult males weigh from 80 to 192 kg (176 to 423 lb) while adult females weigh from 55 to 124 kg (121 to 273 lb).
Sloth bears have a long coat despite the relatively warm environment in which the species is found. But coat protects them from being bitten by their favorite food — insects!
Sloth bears have a shaggy black coat, especially over the shoulders. Brown and grey hairs found on the coat give the appearance of a cinnamon color on some bears.
These bears have a light “U” or “Y” shaped patch on their chests. The color of these markings varies from white to yellow to chesnut brown. This feature is sometimes absent, particularly in Sri Lankan specimens.
Compared to the body, the face appears naked and grey.
These bears have long snouts, which are similar to but less elongate than those of anteaters.
They have extremely large tongues, a mobile snout, and they can voluntarily open and close their nostrils, all of which prove helpful with their diets.
The body structure of the sloth bear is awkward with huge feet and enormous claws. Sloth bears are nevertheless capable of galloping faster than a person can run.
Sloth bears are mainly nocturnal. During the day they sleep in caves, especially caves by river banks.
They are excellent climbers, but do not climb trees to escape danger.
Their sense of smell is well developed but their sight and hearing are poor.
Sloth bears are omnivorous, although their diet typically includes a large proportion of insect foods.
Sloth bears are expert hunters of termites, which they locate by smell. On arriving at a mound, they scrape at the structure with their claws till they reach the large combs at the bottom of the galleries, and disperse the soil with violent puffs. The termites are then sucked up through the muzzle, producing a sucking sound which can be heard 180 meters (590 feet) away.
Their sense of smell is strong enough to detect grubs 1 meter (3 feet) below ground.
Sloth bears do not hibernate, but do have a period of inactivity during the rainy season.
Sloth bears are usually solitary, except during the breeding season and when raising young.
The breeding season for sloth bears varies according to location. The gestation period is about 7 months. A female gives birth to one or two (rarely three) cubs in a cave. Sloth bear cubs open their eyes at about 2 to 3 weeks old and start to walk around 4 weeks. Young cubs ride on their mother’s back when she walks, runs, or climbs trees until they reach a third of her size. Sloth bears are the only bears that carry their young on their back.
When feeding their cubs, sows are reported to regurgitate a mixture of half-digested jack fruit, wood apples, and pieces of honeycomb. This sticky substance hardens into a dark yellow, circular, bread-like mass which is fed to the cubs. This “bear’s bread” is considered a delicacy by some of India’s natives.
The cubs stay with their mother until they reach adulthood at about 2 to 3 years of age.
These bears only risk predation from large predators such as tigers and leopards. Female sloth bears with cubs will occasionally vary from their nocturnal tendencies to avoid these nocturnal predators.
The sloth bear is listed as Vulnerable by the IUCN due to habitat loss and poaching.
Historically, humans have drastically reduced their habitat and diminished their population by hunting them for food and products such as their bacula and claws.
These bears have been used as performing pets due to their tameable nature.
Sloth bears were trained by Qualanders, a nomadic group that roamed India and entertained crowds with performing animals and circus acts, and were the original dancing bears.
These bears are generally not aggressive, but their poor eyesight and hearing allows humans to draw near, and when feeling threatened these bears will defend themselves.
It was once believed that a sloth bear was being aggressive and threatening when it stood up on its hind feet, but often the bears are just getting a better view and checking the air for whiffs of food or danger.