Today, we are focusing on South America – a continent that includes the world’s largest rainforest, the world’s longest continental mountain range and the world’s driest non-polar desert. The Amazon Rainforest, the Andes Mountains and the Atacama Desert provide South America with some of the most diverse and unique species found on Earth.
One of those species is the spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus), also known as the Andean bear. The spectacled bear is the only surviving species of bear native to South America. It is also the last member of the short-faced bears – an ancient lineage of bears that included one of the largest terrestrial mammalian carnivores ever to have lived. However, habitat loss has made the spectacled bear vulnerable, and without conservation they could suffer the same fate as their past ancestors.
Spectacled bears get their name from the cream-coloured, patchy facial markings that are unique to each individual. They are found in the Andes, between elevations of 250 and 4,500 metres (around 800 to 15,000 feet) above sea level. Highly adaptable, they can live in a wide range of habitats, although they are most commonly found in the humid Andean cloud forests. Because of this, they have evolved to become excellent climbers and are considered habitually arboreal. Andean bears are shy animals and will often climb trees to hide from humans.
These bears are adaptable eaters too. Primarily vegetarian, they will consume a diet of fruits, berries, leaves, shoots, cacti and honey. Their short muzzle, strong jaws and flattened molars allow them to easily chew through tough vegetation like tree bark. They climb trees to find the best fruits, and may wait up here for days while the fruit ripens. However, they will consume meat on occasion as well; they will target small rodents, birds and insects.
The main threat facing these bears is habitat loss. As little as 5% of the Andean cloud forests remain. Poaching is another factor threatening their survival. I’m hoping their fascinating behaviours will be explored further in this week’s episode of Seven Worlds, One Planet. Interestingly, Paddington Bear is actually a spectacled bear and with their distinctive appearance and polite nature it is not hard to see why.
Hennessy, K., Wiggins, V. (2014) Animal Encyclopedia: The Definitive Visual Guide. 2nd edn. London. Dorling Kindersley.
Seven Worlds, One Planet Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nm5XasUl7HM