The small sloth bear is unique amongst the bears, as insects are its main food source. It has a long, shaggy black coat, which on some individuals appears to have a cinnamon tinge, and there is a pale white/cream marking on the chest. The muzzle is also pale in colour and these bears have a shaggy mane of hair around the shoulders. The snout is relatively long, the lips are bare, and sloth bears lack upper incisors, all of which are adaptations for their insect-based diet. The front feet are turned inwards and have large and slightly curved ivory claws for digging. Early explorers saw these bears lying upside down in trees and gave them their common name of sloth bear.
Most sloth bears live in India and Sri Lanka; others live in southern Nepal, and they have been reported in Bhutan and Bangladesh.
Sloth bears mate during the hot season—May, June, and July—and females usually give birth to two cubs six to seven months later. Cubs are born in an underground den, and stay there for several months. After emerging from the den, cubs stay at their mother’s side for two to three years before heading off on their own.
It is unknown how long sloth bears live in the wild. But these bears have lived up to 40 years in zoos.
Sloth bears are the only bears to carry young on their backs. In the late 1700s, the first Europeans to see sloth bears described them as bear-like sloths due to their ungainly appearance and long claws.
The Hindi word for bear—bhalu—inspired the name of Rudyard Kipling’s bear character Baloo in The Jungle Book.
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