Animal Fact Sheets

RANGE MAP

sun bear range map

SUN BEAR

(Helarctos malayanus)
 

Classification and Range

The Malayan sun bear belongs to the family Ursidae, which includes eight bear species worldwide. Sun bears live on the Malay Peninsula, in Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, and possibly in southern China. There are also small, remnant populations in India and Bangladesh

Habitat

All elevations of dense tropical and subtropical forests.

Length and Shoulder Height

Adult length: 3.5-4.5 feet (1.1-1.4 m) Adult height: 28 inches (72 cm) .

Weight

Males 60-143 pounds (27-65 kg) Males are 10-20% heavier than females

Life Span

Life span in the wild is unknown; up to 28 years in zoos.

Diet

In the wild: Sun bears eat predominantly fruit, honey, insects and their larvae, small rodents, lizards, birds, earthworms, green vegetation and roots. Sun bears also relish the growing tips of coconut palms grown on plantations. This kills the palms and leads to sun bears being shot by plantation owners. At the zoo: Omnivore biscuits, a variety of fruits, vegetables, insects and honey (occasionally fish).

Reproduction

Little is known about the breeding activity of sun bears. They have been observed breeding at all times during the year, which suggests they have no regular breeding season. Females first mate at about 3 years of age. The mating period lasts from two days to a week, during which time a mating pair will engage in behavior such as hugging, mock fighting and head bobbing. The sun bear gestation period is approximately 95 days. Sun bears have been observed giving birth to one or two cubs in both ground and tree nests. Average birth weight is 10.5-12 ounces (300-400 g).

Life Cycle

Newly born cubs are blind and hairless and totally dependent on their mother for survival. Cubs develop quickly, however, and within two or three months are able to run, play and forage with their mother. Young cubs must learn from their mother what is suitable to eat, where to find food and how to get it. Cubs usually remain with their mother 1.5-2.5 years.

Sun Bear - World's Smallest Bear!

The sun bear is the smallest member of the bear family. Sun bears usually have a white or yellowish crescent marking on their chest which many people believe looks like the rising or setting sun. Hence the name, "sun bear." In the Malay language, sun bears are called basindo nan tenggil, meaning "he who likes to sit high." Indeed, sun bears are arboreal and spend a considerable amount of time in trees. Sun bears quickly skim the forest floor in search of bee and termite nests and other insects. Agile climbers, sun bears use their short, powerful, bowed legs, and feet with hairless soles and long claws, to climb trees in their endless search for food. Once a tasty treat is excavated, they use their long tongues to slurp up the honey, insects or other delicacies. For larger, hard-to-open fruits such as coconuts, sun bears use their powerful jaws to break open the outer shell. Sun bears build small nests from broken branches in trees which they use for sleeping, and possibly as a feeding platform.

Small but Powerful

Although sun bears are only about half the size of American black bears, they are well equipped to defend themselves if attacked by a large predator such as a tiger. They make a barking sound as they rise on their hind legs, and use their long sickle-like claws, disproportionately large canines and powerful jaws to inflict serious damage to their attacker. Sun bears have very small ears and dense, black hair, about .5 inch long, which effectively repels water, mud and other debris. Of interest, if a large predator grabs a sun bear, it can turn in its loose skin and bite its attacker.

Location at the Zoo

Woodland Park Zoo's sun bears can be found along the Trail of Adaptations at the bear grotto facing the North Meadow. The bear's multi-level naturalistic setting contains major components of these bears’ natural environment. Visitors will have the opportunity to observe sun bears as they may behave in the wild.

Conservation Connection

Sun bears are listed as an endangered species. During prehistoric times, sun bears inhabited lowland forests of southeast Asia, from Malaysia and Indonesia to as far west as India. Today, however, only fragmented populations live in remnants of their former habitat. Sun bears are the least studied of all bears, so it is unknown how many are left in the wild. What is certain, though, is that their numbers are steadily declining due to habitat loss resulting from excessive logging and agriculture, the pet trade, poaching for meat and use of their gall bladders in traditional Asian medicine. Woodland Park Zoo is supporting field studies on sun bears in Thailand to learn more about their behavior and habitat. Zoo staff have also developed a Species Survival Plan (SSP) for the sun bear which addresses the need for educating local people on their native wildlife species, including the sun bear, and for breeding and conducting research on captive sun bears. Researchers will monitor their reproductive cycles to improve zoo-based breeding programs and sun bear reproduction in the wild. For more information our our sun bear conservation project, visit the Sun Bear Reproduction Project page in our Conservation section.

How You Can Help!

You can help preserve and protect wildlife and their habitat. Join and become active in Woodland Park Zoo and other conservation organizations of your choice. Please do not buy products made from wild animal parts. Contact Woodland Park Zoo at webkeeper@zoo.org to find out about ways you can support conservation programs at the zoo. Learn other ways you can help conserve wildlife and the habitats they require for survival by visiting our How You Can Help page.

Contact Woodland Park Zoo at webkeeper@zoo.org to find out about ways you can support conservation programs at the zoo. Learn other ways you can help conserve wildlife and the habitats they require for survival by visiting our How You Can Help page.

Sources and Suggested Reading

Domico, Terry. 1988. Bears of the World. Facts on File, New York, NY. 189 p. Stirling, I., ed. 1993. Bears: Majestic Creatures of the Wild. Rodale Press, Emmaus, PA. 240 p.

For Kids!

Gilka, H., & Bale, A. 1993. Bears. Ticknor & Fields, New York, NY. 30 p. Lynch, W. 1995. Bears, Bears, Bears. Firefly Books, Willowdale, Ontario, Canada. 63 p.

Sun Bear Taxonomy

Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Family: Ursidae
Genus: Helarctos
Species: H. malayanus

Sun Bear Fascinating Facts

  • Sun bears have an especially long tongue (for a bear) which is probably an adaptation for extracting honey and insects!
  • Small, remnant populations of sun bears still occur in eastern India (Assam), where they coexist with Asiatic black bears and sloth bears. This is the only place in the world where three species of bears coexist!
 
 
 
 

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