Sun Bear Facts

Scientific Name: Helarctos malayanus

Sun bear
The sun bear lives in topical forests.

Tarik Thami / Getty Images

The sun bear (Helarctos malayanus) is the smallest species of bear. It gets its common name for the white or golden bib on its chest, which is said to represent the rising sun. The animal is also known as the honey bear, reflecting its love of honey, or the dog bear, referring to its stocky build and short muzzle.

Fast Facts: Sun Bear

  • Scientific Name: Helarctos malayanus
  • Common Names: Sun bear, honey bear, dog bear
  • Basic Animal Group: Mammal
  • Size: 47-59 inches
  • Weight: 60-176 pounds
  • Lifespan: 30 years
  • Diet: Omnivore
  • Habitat: Southeast Asia rainforests
  • Population: Decreasing
  • Conservation Status: Vulnerable

Description

The sun bear has short black fur with a pale crescent-shaped bib that may be white, cream, or golden. It has a short, buff-colored muzzle. The bear has small, round ears; an extremely long tongue; large canine teeth; and large, curved claws. The soles of its feet are hairless, which helps the bear climb trees.

Adult male sun bears are 10% to 20% larger than females. Adults average between 47 and 59 inches long and weigh between 60 and 176 pounds.

Sun bear with open mouth
The sun bear has curved claws and an extremely long tongue. Freder / Getty Images

Habitat and Distribution

Sun bears live in the evergreen tropical rainforests of Southeast Asia. Their habitat includes northeastern India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, southern China, and some Indonesian islands. There are two subspecies of sun bear. The Bornean sun bear only lives on the island of Borneo. The Malayan sun bear occurs in Asia and on the island of Sumatra.

Diet

Sun bears, like other bears, are omnivores. They feed on bees, hives, honey, termites, ants, insect larvae, nuts, figs and other fruit, and sometimes flowers, plant shoots, and eggs. The bear's strong jaws easily crack open nuts.

Sun bears are hunted by humans, leopards, tigers, and pythons.

Behavior

Despite its name, the sun bear is largely nocturnal. It relies on its keen sense of smell to find food at night. The bear's long claws help it climb and also tear open termite mounds and trees. The bear uses its extremely long tongue to lap up honey from bee hives. Male bears are more likely than females to be active during the day.

Although relatively small, sun bears are known to be fierce and aggressive if disturbed. Because they live in the tropics, the bears are active year-round and do not hibernate.

Reproduction and Offspring

Sun bears reach sexual maturity around 3 to 4 years of age. They can mate at any time of the year. After a gestation period of 95 to 174 days, the females gives birth to one or two cubs (although twins are uncommon). Newborn cubs are blind and hairless and weigh between 9.9 and 11.5 ounces. Cubs are weaned after 18 months. In captivity, male and female bears socialize and jointly care for young. In other bear species the female raises her cubs on her own. The lifespan of highly reclusive wild sun bears is unknown, but captive bears live up to 30 years.

Sun bear cub drinking from a bottle
Sun bear cubs are born blind and furless. Christian Aslund / Getty Images

Conservation Status

The IUCN classifies the sun bear's conservation status as "vulnerable." Bear populations are decreasing in size. The sun bear has been listed on CITES Appendix I since 1979.

Threats

While it is illegal to kill sun bears throughout their range, commercial hunting is among the species' greatest threats. Sun bears are poached for their meat and gall bladders. Bear bile is used in traditional Chinese medicine and is also an ingredient in soft drinks, shampoo, and cough drops. Despite their temperament, sun bears are also illegally captured for the pet trade.

The other significant threat to sun bear survival is habitat loss and fragmentation due to deforestation and human encroachment. Forest fires also affect sun bears, but they tend to recover providing there is a neighboring population.

Sun bears are kept in captivity for their commercial value and for conservation. They are farmed for their gall bladders in Vietnam, Laos, and Myanmar. Since 1994, the species has been part of a captive-breeding program with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the European breed registry. The Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre in Sandakan, Malaysia rehabilitates sun bears and works toward their conservation.

Sources

  • Brown, G. Great Bear Almanac. 1996. ISBN:978-1-55821-474-3.
  • Foley, K. E., Stengel, C. J. and Shepherd, C. R. Pills, Powders, Vials and Flakes: The Bear Bile Trade in Asia. Traffic Southeast Asia, Petaling Jaya, Selangor, Malaysia, 2011.
  • Scotson, L., Fredriksson, G., Augeri, D., Cheah, C., Ngoprasert, D. & Wai-Ming, W. Helarctos malayanus (errata version published in 2018). The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2017: e.T9760A123798233. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2017-3.RLTS.T9760A45033547.en
  • Servheen, C.; Salter, R. E. "Chapter 11: Sun Bear Conservation Action Plan." In Servheen, C.; Herrero, S.; Peyton, B. (eds.). Bears: Status Survey and Conservation Action Plan. Gland: International Union for Conservation of Nature. pp. 219–224, 1999.
  • Wong, S. T.; Servheen, C. W.; Ambu, L. "Home range, movement and activity patterns, and bedding sites of Malayan sun bears Helarctos malayanus in the Rainforest of Borneo." Biological Conservation. 119 (2): 169–181, 2004. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2003.10.029