Sun bears are uncommon at the northern and western edges of their range (southern Yunnan province, southeastern Tibet, northeast India, and Bangladesh; (Chauhan 2006, Gong and Harris 2006); this lower abundance was apparent in historical times (e.g., in India; Higgins 1932) so is probably a natural gradient unrelated to human exploitation.
Helarctos malayanus ranges from the eastern Himalayas to Szechuan in China, then southward throughout Burma, parts of Indochina and the Malayan peninsula. Their range is probably greater than what is actually known.
Biogeographic Regions: oriental (Native )
- Sanderson, I. 1972. Living Mammals of the World. Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company.
- Ward, P., S. Kynaston. 1995. Bears of the World. London: Blanford.
Sun bears are the smallest bears in the family Ursidae. They stand 70 cm at the shoulder and are 1.2 to 1.5 m from head to tail. The tail itself is 3 to 7 cm. Males are larger than the females but only by 10 to 20%. They have short, wide, flat heads with small round ears. Their fur is rather coarse but appears sleek. This coat is entirely black except for a "U" shaped patch on the chest and a grey to faintly orange muzzle. The yellowish or white chest patch is highly variable, "U" shaped in some and completely absent in others. This mark may exaggerate bears' sizes during fights. The young are born with soft, shiny coats. The paws are fairly large with sickle-shaped claws and naked soles which are thought to be helpful in climbing trees. These bears have an interesting walk, with all four legs turned in while walking.
Range mass: 27 to 65 kg.
Range length: 1.2 to 1.5 m.
Other Physical Features: endothermic ; homoiothermic; bilateral symmetry
Sexual Dimorphism: male larger
- International Association for Bear Research and Management (IBA), 1999. "Sun Bear" (On-line). Accessed Nov. 27, 2001 at http://www.bearbiology.com/sudesc.html.
- Nowak, R. 1997. ""Walker's Mammals of the World"" (On-line). Accessed Nov. 1, 2001 at http://www.press.jhu.edu/books/walkers_mammals_of_the_world/special.html.
Habitat and Ecology
In contrast, sun bears in mainland Southeast Asia inhabit seasonal ecosystems with a long dry season (37 months), during which rainfall is <100 mm per month. Seasonal forest types are usually interspersed in a mosaic that includes semi-evergreen, mixed deciduous, dry dipterocarp (<1,000 m elevation), and montane evergreen forest (>1,000 m). The range of sun bears overlaps that of Asiatic black bears (Ursus thibetanus) in this seasonal forest mosaic.
Sun bears also have been reported in mangrove forest, although their occurrence in this forest type probably depends on proximity to other, more favored habitats. Sun bears use selectively logged areas (Wong et al. 2004, Meijaard et al. 2005), and oil palm plantations near forest edges (Nomura et al. 2004). However, there is no evidence that sun bears can survive in deforested or agricultural areas in the absence of nearby forest (Augeri 2005).
Sun bears occur from near sea level to over 2,100 m elevation, but appear to be most common in lower elevation forests. In Indonesia and western Thailand, for example, sun bears occur primarily below 1,200 m (Augeri 2005, Vinitpornsawan et al. 2006). Sun bears have been observed up to 2,100 m in Myanmar (Saw Htun 2006), 1,600 m in Lao PDR (Steinmetz et al. 1999), and 2,143 m in Sumatra (Augeri 2005).
Sun bears are omnivores, feeding primarily on termites, ants, beetle larvae, bee larvae and honey, and a large variety of fruit species, especially figs (Ficus spp.), when available (McConkey and Galetti 1999, Wong et al. 2002, Augeri 2005, Fredriksson et al. 2006). Occasionally, growth shoots of certain palms and some species of flowers are consumed (Fredriksson et al. 2006), but otherwise vegetative matter rarely occurs in the diet. In Bornean forests, fruits of the families Moraceae, Burseraceae and Myrtaceae make up more than 50% of the fruit diet (Fredriksson et al. 2006), whereas in western Thailand fruits of Lauraceae and Fagaceae are the most commonly consumed (Vinitpornsawan et al. 2006). In Thailand sun bears and Asiatic black bears use many of the same habitats and have extensive overlap in diet. However, in montane forests >1,200 m elevation (where ground cover is sparse) Asiatic black bears are more abundant than sun bears (Vinitpornsawan et al. 2006).
Little is known about social structure or reproduction in sun bears. Except for females with their offspring, sun bears are usually solitary. They may congregate to feed from large fruiting trees, but this behavior appears to be rare. Sun bears do not seem to have a defined breeding season anywhere in their range and usually give birth to only one cub (less commonly two; Schwarzenberger et al. 2004). Female bears use cavities of either standing or fallen large hollow trees as birthing sites. As sun bears occur in tropical regions with year-round available foods, they do not hibernate.
Sun bears are found in dense lowland tropical forests. They can commonly be found climbing in trees.
Habitat Regions: tropical ; terrestrial
Terrestrial Biomes: forest ; rainforest
Sun bears are opportunistic omnivores, with bees, termites, and earthworms comprising the main part of their diet. Fruit is also eaten when available. The former are more regular food sources than fruit and usually there is no need for H. malayanus to cover great distances in their search for food. These bears have long tongues that are helpful for obtaining insects from trees, termites from their nests, and honey from bee hives. Should the opportunity present itself, sun bears will eat small rodents, birds, and lizards along with scavenging tiger kills. In human populated areas their diet may include rubbish, livestock, and agricultural fruit such as bananas.
Animal Foods: birds; mammals; carrion ; insects; terrestrial worms
Plant Foods: fruit
Primary Diet: omnivore
In certain regions, sun bears are important in seed dispersal. In a study of H. malayanus in Borneo, one sample of these bear feces was found to contain 309 seeds of a certain species of plant. They also impact the colonial insect populations that they prey on.
Ecosystem Impact: disperses seeds
- McConkey, K., M. Galetti. 1999. Seed dispersal by sun bear *Helarctos malayanus* in Central Borneo. Tropical Ecology, 15: 237-241.
Predation on sun bears is not reported. Because of their size they are likely to have few natural predators. Young bears may be killed by aggressive conspecifics or by tigers.
Anti-predator Adaptations: cryptic
Known prey organisms
This list may not be complete but is based on published studies.
Life History and Behavior
Like other bear species, sun bears have a keen sense of smell. Bears tend to use their senses of smell and touch to find and manipulate food. They probably use olfactory cues to find potential mates and use some vocalizations.
Communication Channels: acoustic ; chemical
Perception Channels: visual ; tactile ; acoustic ; chemical
In captivity sun bears have lived up to 24 years and nine months.
Status: captivity: 24.75 (high) years.
Status: captivity: 35.9 years.
- Helin, S. 1999. Mammalian of China. Beijing, China: China Forestry Publishing House.
Lifespan, longevity, and ageing
Little is known about mating in sun bears.
Little is known about the reproductive behavior of sun bears in the wild. Gestation period lasts about 95 days, but there is evidence of delayed implantation. Some sun bear pregnancies in a zoo in Fort Worth lasted 174 to 240 days. A sun bear at the Berlin Zoo actually gave birth two times in one year in 1961, first in April, then again in August, but this is rare. Litter size is usually around one to two but occasionally there are three. Newborns are blind, hairless, and helpless and weigh a mere 300 grams. Cubs stay with their mothers until fully grown and reach sexual maturity around three years of age.
Breeding interval: Frequency of breeding in females is unknown.
Breeding season: Breeding occurs throughout the year.
Range number of offspring: 1 to 3.
Average number of offspring: 1-2.
Range gestation period: 95 to 240 days.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female): 3 years.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male): 3 years.
Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; year-round breeding ; gonochoric/gonochoristic/dioecious (sexes separate); sexual ; viviparous ; delayed implantation
Average birth mass: 325 g.
Average number of offspring: 1.
Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
Sex: female: 2372 days.
Like other bear species, sun bear females invest large amounts of energy into raising their altricial young to a stage at which they are able to be independent.
Parental Investment: altricial ; pre-fertilization (Provisioning, Protecting: Female); pre-hatching/birth (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Female); pre-weaning/fledging (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Female); pre-independence (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Female); extended period of juvenile learning
- International Association for Bear Research and Management (IBA), 1999. "Sun Bear" (On-line). Accessed Nov. 27, 2001 at http://www.bearbiology.com/sudesc.html.
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Barcode data: Helarctos malayanus
Below is a sequence of the barcode region Cytochrome oxidase subunit 1 (COI or COX1) from a member of the species.
See the BOLD taxonomy browser for more complete information about this specimen and other sequences.
-- end --
Download FASTA File
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Helarctos malayanus
Public Records: 3
Specimens with Barcodes: 3
Species With Barcodes: 1
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
In addition, Sun Bear numbers have been reduced by uncontrolled exploitation for body parts. It is expected that commercial exploitation will continue during the next 30 years unless abated by the implementation of significant anti-poaching measures.
- 1996Data Deficient (DD)
- 1994Vulnerable (V)
- 1990Vulnerable (V)
Sun bears are one of the rarest bears. The exact number alive today is not known, but the population is steadily declining due to deforestation and hunting. Habitat destruction is causing these bears to live in smaller and more isolated patches. The land is being cleared to create coffee, rubber and oil palm plantations. Poachers are flocking to protected areas and reserves because they know there are bears there. Reserves may not even be providing sufficient habitats for these bears because their needs are not completely known. Not many conservation attempts have been done to save these bears because so little is known about them.
US Federal List: no special status
CITES: appendix i
IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: vulnerable
- Servheen Christopher, March/April 1999. "Bear COnservation Around the World" (On-line). Accessed Nov. 27, 2001 at http://www.fonz.org/zoogoer/zg1999/28%282%29bearconserve.htm.
Human-caused fires in parts of Sundaland are also diminishing habitat quality for sun bears. These fires are more extensive during El Nio-related droughts. On Borneo, periods of prolonged drought have disrupted fruiting patterns (e.g., Harrison 2000), which in combination with reduced habitat availability due to logging and fires, resulted in starvation among sun bears, even in primary forest areas (Wong et al. 2005, Fredriksson et al. 2006b).
Commercial poaching of bears for the wildlife trade is a considerable threat in most countries (Meijaard 1999, Nea and Nong 2006, Nguyen Xuan Dang 2006, Saw Htun 2006, Tumbelaka and Fredriksson 2006, Wong 2006), and is the main threat where deforestation is currently negligible (for example in Thailand where nearly all remaining forest is within protected areas; Vinitporsawan et al. 2006). Killing bears is illegal in all range countries but is largely uncontrolled. In Thailand, local hunters in one area estimated that commercial poaching reduced the abundance of sun bears by 50% in 20 years (Steinmetz et al. 2006).
In Myanmar, Thailand, Lao PDR, Cambodia and Viet Nam, sun bears are commonly poached for their gall bladders (i.e., bile) and bear-paws; the former is used as a Traditional Chinese Medicine, and the latter as an expensive delicacy. In China and Viet Nam, bile is milked from commercially-farmed bears; however, as there are few sun bears in China, farms there contain mainly Asiatic black bears. Conversely, both sun bears and Asiatic black bears are farmed in Viet Nam, in small private enterprises. Bears are routinely removed from the wild to stock or restock these small farms (Nguyen Xuan Dang 2006, B. Long, MOSAIC and WWF-Viet Nam pers. comm.).
Other motivations for killing bears include: preventing damage to crops (Fredriksson 2005), subsistence use, fear of bears near villages, and capture of cubs for pets (the mother being killed in the process). Although few sun bears exist in India, villagers there still kill sizeable numbers (Chauhan and Singh 2006).
Despite significant poaching within extant forest areas, sun bear populations appear to persist longer than some other heavily-exploited large carnivores. For example, tiger (Panthera tigris) populations have been severely reduced or extirpated in 12 of 15 protected areas surveyed in Myanmar, whereas sun bears were still encountered relatively frequently in 13 of these areas (Lynam 2003, Saw Htun 2006). Similarly, in Thailand tigers are close to extirpation in the Khao Yai forest complex, but sun bears and their signs are still consistently encountered there (Lynam et al. 2006, Vinitpornsawan et al. 2006).
Conservation measures and priorities vary by country. None of the range countries have established specific conservation measures for sun bears, and some taking is permitted (Servheen 1999). General measures to reduce forest loss and poaching would help conserve the species. The most beneficial conservation measure in Indonesia and Malaysia would be protection of remaining forests from conversion to other land-uses, eliminating unsustainable logging practices, and prevention of forest fires. Establishment of new and effectively managed protected areas in Indonesia and Malaysia should be promoted in order to preempt land conversion (Augeri 2005, Tumbelaka and Fredriksson 2006, Wong 2006).
Reducing the trade in bear parts would be highly beneficial for the survival of the species in mainland Southeast Asia. However, given available resources, the patrolling and monitoring of entire protected areas is currently an overwhelming task. To make this problem more manageable, a network of small bear recovery zones (100200 km) could be established within key protected areas. The patrolling efforts of rangers could then be focused on these zones. Recovery zones should be locations with plentiful bear foods such as trees from the families Lauraceae, Moraceae, Burseraceae, Myrtaceae and Fagaceae. Such zones would provide a biologically meaningful, geographically focused, and logistically realistic way for the efforts of protected area staff to be translated into population recovery for bears (and other wildlife species).
Recently, the Bear Specialist Group mapped the current, range-wide distribution of sun bears. Important habitat blocks for long-term survival of sun bears were identified (Bear Conservation Units-BCUs). Anti-poaching efforts within these BCUs should be a high priority. Trends in bear occurrence and relative abundance within BCUs could be monitored using standardized sign surveys and camera trapping. Results of such monitoring could indicate which management or ecological conditions promote successful bear conservation, and which do not, and provide a means to assess the results of conservation efforts (e.g., future range expansion and/or increased bear density being indicative of effective conservation efforts). Additional field studies also would be helpful in this regard; few intensive studies have been conducted on this species.
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
Sun bears have been known to cause damage to crops such as oil palms, coconuts, and bananas.
Negative Impacts: crop pest
The gall bladders and other body parts of sun bears are used in folk medical practices. It has been proven, though, that they have no medicinal value. People hunt them for sport and profit. They are commonly sold as pets when they are cubs, but quickly outgrow the stage when they are manageable as pets.
Positive Impacts: pet trade ; source of medicine or drug ; controls pest population
The sun bear (Helarctos malayanus) is a bear found in tropical forest habitats of Southeast Asia. It is classified as Vulnerable by IUCN as the large-scale deforestation that has occurred throughout Southeast Asia over the past three decades has dramatically reduced suitable habitat for the sun bear. It is suspected that the global population has declined by more than 30% over the past three bear generations.
The Malayan sun bear is also known as the "honey bear", which refers to its voracious appetite for honeycombs and honey. However, "honey bear" can also refer to a kinkajou, which is an unrelated member of the Procyonidae.
The sun bear's fur is usually jet-black, short and sleek with some under-wool; some individual sun bears are reddish or gray. There are two whirls on the shoulders, from where the hair radiates in all directions. There is a crest on the sides of the neck and a whorl in the centre of the breast patch. There is always a more or less crescent-shaped pale patch on the breast that varies individually in colour ranging from buff, cream or dirty white to ochreous. The skin is naked on the upper lip. The tongue is long and protrusible. The ears are small and round, broad at the base and capable of very little movement. The front legs are somewhat bowed with the paws turned inwards, and the claws are cream.
The sun bear is the smallest of the bears. Adults are about 120–150 cm (47–59 in) long and weigh 27–80 kg (60–176 lb). Males are 10–20% larger than females. The muzzle is short and light coloured, and in most cases the white area extends above the eyes. The paws are large, and the soles are naked, which is thought to be an adaptation for climbing trees. The claws are large, curved, and pointed. They are sickle-shaped; the front paw claws are long and heavy. The tail is 30–70 mm (1.2–2.8 in) long.
During feeding, the sun bear can extend the exceptionally long tongue 20–25 cm (7.9–9.8 in) to extract insects and honey. It has very large teeth, especially canines, and high bite forces in relation to its body size, which are not well understood, but could be related to its frequent opening of tropical hardwood trees (with its powerful jaws and claws) in pursuit of insects, larvae, or honey. The entire head is also large, broad, and heavy in proportion to the body, and the palate is wide in proportion to the skull. The overall morphology of this bear (inward turned front feet, ventrally flattened chest, powerful forelimbs with large claws) indicates adaptation for extensive climbing.
Distribution and habitat
Sun bears are found in the tropical rainforest of Southeast Asia ranging from north-eastern India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Peninsular Malaysia, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam to southern Yunnan Province in China, and on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. They now occur very patchily through much of their former range, and have been extirpated from many areas, especially in mainland Southeast Asia. Their current distribution in eastern Myanmar and most of Yunnan is unknown. The bear’s habitat is associated with tropical evergreen forests
Distribution of subspecies
- H. m. malayanus (Raffles, 1821) — inhabits Asian mainland and Sumatra;
- H. m. euryspilus (Horsfield, 1825) — occurs only on the island of Borneo.
Ecology and behavior
As sun bears occur in tropical regions with year-round available foods, they do not hibernate. Except for females with their offspring, they are usually solitary. Male sun bears are primarily diurnal, but some are active at night for short periods. Bedding sites consist mainly of fallen hollow logs, but they also rest in standing trees with cavities, in cavities underneath fallen logs or tree roots, and in tree branches high above the ground.
In captivity they exhibit social behavior, and sleep mostly during the day.
Sun bears are known as very fierce animals when surprised in the forest.
Bees, beehives, and honey are important food items of sun bears. They are omnivores, feeding primarily on termites, ants, beetle larvae, bee larvae and a large variety of fruit species, especially figs when available. Occasionally, growth shoots of certain palms and some species of flowers are consumed, but otherwise vegetative matter appears rare in the diet. In the forests of Kalimantan, fruits of Moraceae, Burseraceae and Myrtaceae make up more than 50% of the fruit diet. They are known to tear open trees with their long, sharp claws and teeth in search of wild bees and leave behind shattered tree trunks.
Sun bear scats collected in a Forest Reserve in Sabah contained mainly invertebrates such as beetles and their larvae, termites and ants, followed by fruits and vertebrates. They break open decayed wood in search of termites, beetle larvae, and earthworms, and use their claws and teeth to break the standing termite mound into a few pieces. They quickly lick and suck the contents from the exposed mound, and also hold pieces of the broken mound with their front paws, while licking the termites from the surface of the mound. They consume figs in large amounts and eat them whole. Vertebrates consumed comprise birds, eggs, reptiles, turtles, deer and several unidentified small vertebrates. Hair or bone remains are rarely found in sun bear scat.
Females are observed to mate at about 3 years of age. During time of mating, the sun bear will show behaviour like hugging, mock fighting and head bobbing with its mate.
Gestation has been reported at 95 and 174 days. Litters consist of one or two cubs weighing about 280–325 g (9.9–11.5 oz) each. Cubs are born blind and hairless. Initially, they are totally dependent on their mother, and suckle for about 18 months. After one to three months, the young can run, play and forage near their mother. They reach sexual maturity after 3–4 years, and may live up to 30 years in captivity.
The two major threats to sun bears are habitat loss and commercial hunting. These threats are not evenly distributed throughout their range. In areas where deforestation is actively occurring, they are mainly threatened by the loss of forest habitat and forest degradation arising from clear-cutting for plantation development, unsustainable logging practices, illegal logging both within and outside protected areas and forest fires.
The main predator of sun bears throughout its range by far is man. Commercial poaching of bears for the wildlife trade is a considerable threat in most countries. During surveys in Kalimantan between 1994 and 1997, interviewees admitted to hunting sun bears and indicated that sun bear meat is eaten by indigenous people in several areas in Kalimantan. High consumption of bear parts was reported to occur where Japanese or Korean expatriate employees of timber companies created a temporary demand. Traditional Chinese medicine shops in Sarawak and Sabah offered sun bear gall bladders. Several confiscated sun bears indicated that live bears are also in demand for the pet trade.
Sun bears are among the three primary bear species specifically targeted for the bear bile trade in Southeast Asia, and are kept in bear farms in Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar. Bear bile products include raw bile sold in vials, gall bladder by the gram or in whole form, flakes, powder and pills. The commercial production of bear bile from bear farming has turned bile from a purely traditional medicinal (TCM) ingredient to a commodity with bile now found in non-TCM products like cough drops, shampoo and soft drinks.
Tigers and other large cats are potential predators. A wild female sun bear was swallowed by a large reticulated python in a lowland dipterocarp forest in East Kalimantan. It is possible that the python had come across the sleeping bear. Other predators on mainland Southeast Asia and Sumatra could be the leopard and the clouded leopard although the latter could be too small to kill an adult sun bear.
Helarctos malayanus is listed on CITES Appendix I since 1979. Killing of sun bears is strictly prohibited under national wildlife protection laws throughout their range. However, little enforcement of these laws occurs.
The Malayan sun bear is part of an international captive breeding program and has a Species Survival Plan under the American Zoo and Aquarium Association since late 1994. Since that same year, the European Studbook for sun bears is kept in the Cologne Zoo, Germany.
Comprehensive research about sun bear conservation and rehabilitation is the mission of the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre in Sandakan, Sabah; founded in 2008 by wildlife biologist Wong Siew Te.
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