Some bears are big, some bears are small. Some bears are ferocious, some bears are funny. But which bear is the most adorable bear of them all? The general consensus seems to point towards the Sun Bear as everyone’s favorite goofy, fluffy member of the ursine family! This cute and slightly odd bear, sometimes known as the “honey bear” (Winnie the Pooh has nothing on these guy’s appetite for honey), is native to Southeast Asia, but can now be found in zoos around the world, usually with a crowd of people “oohing” over its cute antics.
The Native Life Of A Sun Bear
In their native home in the forests throughout Southeast Asia, sun bears (Helarctos malayanus) spend their days on the almost constant search for their favorite sweet and sticky treat: honey! While they are omnivores and will eat a great many things, bees, beehives, bee larvae, and especially honeycombs are their preferred foods. Their diet also includes lots of different fruit species that grow in their forests, especially figs. Bugs, such as termites, ants, and the larvae of many beetle species are also a staple of the sun bear’s diet.
Sun bears are relatively solitary creatures. With the exception of mothers with their cubs, individual sun bears rarely group up with another for very long, preferring to go their separate ways as soon as they can. Sun bears tend to be active mostly during the day, and make beds at night in hollow logs, small hollows under fallen logs or rocks, or even standing upright in hollowed-out trees.
Because of the mild climate where sun bears live, these bears, unlike many others, do not hibernate at any point during the year, making the hunt for honey continue year-round! These adorable bears are also the smallest of all the world’s bear species, at an average weight of just 150 pounds for males (600 pounds is the average for American brown bears and male polar bears tend to weigh almost a thousand pounds!). Their relatively small size helps the sun bears be excellent tree climbers.
Bears Making Faces
One detail about sun bears that has fascinated scientists as well as onlookers at zoos is the sun bear’s penchant for mimicking facial expressions and simply having fun making weird faces. Crowds at the zoo enjoy the sun bear’s long, lolling tongue as the bears stick them out while wrinkling their nose or tilting their ears backward or forward.
Scientists are fascinated by this part of sun bear behavior not because of its cuteness, however. Mimicking complex facial expressions is an ability that, before seeing it sun bears, we believed was limited to human beings and a few of our close relatives, such as gorillas. A few other animals, most notably domesticated dogs, sometimes attempt to mimic a facial expression but lack the ability to do so accurately. Sun bears, however, not only try to mimic each other’s expressions but have demonstrated the ability to copy even the most complex faces.
This is fascinating and important because mimicking expressions is an integral part of complicated social behavior. Human beings use is as an essential part of body language, mimicking expressions to show sympathy. Finding this behavior in a relatively unsocial species like sun bears is extremely odd, but when they are put together in zoos scientists quickly picked up on what the bears were doing, even if they had trouble believing their eyes at first. This behavior is leading scientists to look for similar mimicry in other species that they never would have guessed could do it, potentially leading to more discoveries and a greater understanding of the animals we share our world with.
Adoring Crowds And Vulnerability
Sun bears have become popular attractions in zoos across the globe for many reasons: their small size, beautiful markings, calm behavior, and funny faces are just some of these. Hopefully, the crowds of people learning more about these interesting animals will help conservation efforts in their home region and bring the sun bear back from their “Vulnerable” spot on the IUCN Red List.