Smithsonian National Zoological Park l Friends of the National Zoo



Sloth Bear at the Smithsonian's National Zoo

Sloth Bear

Family: Ursidae
Genus and Species: Melursus ursinus

Disheveled in appearance, the sloth bear leads a reclusive life in India's forests, noisily seeking out insects and fruits.

Physical Description:

Sloth bears have shaggy, dusty-black coats, pale, short-haired muzzles, and long, curved claws that they use to excavate ants and termites. A cream-colored "V" or "Y" usually marks their chests. Sloth bears' nostrils can close, protecting the animals from dust or insects when raiding termite nests or bee hives. A gap in their teeth enables them to suck up ants, termites, and other insects.


Sloth bears grow five to six feet long, stand two to three feet high at the shoulder, and weigh from 120 (in lighter females) to 310 pounds (in heavy males).

Geographic Distribution:

Most sloth bears live in India and Sri Lanka; others live in southern Nepal, and they have been reported in Bhutan and Bangladesh.


The sloth bear is listed as vulnerable on the World Conservation Union's Red List of Threatened Animals.


Sloth bears live in a variety of dry and wet forests, and also in some grasslands, where boulders and scattered shrubs and trees provide shelter.

Natural Diet:

When trees are in fruit, usually during the monsoon season, sloth bears dine on mango, fig, ebony, and other fruits, and also on some flowers. However, ants and termites, dug out of their cement-hard nest mounds, are a year-round staple. Also, sloth bears climb trees and knock down honeycombs, later collecting the sweet bounty on the forest floor. Beetles, grubs, ants, and other insects round out their diet. During food shortages, sloth bears will eat carrion. They sometimes raid farm crops.

Zoo Diet:

The Zoo's sloth bears eat insects, mealworms, and crickets, as well as such fruits as pears, melons, oranges, and grapes.


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.


Active mostly at night, the sloth bear is a noisy, busy bear. It grunts and snorts as it pulls down branches to get fruit, digs for termites, or snuffles under debris for grubs and beetles. A sloth bear uses its lips like a vacuum, making rapid, loud "kerfump" noises as it sucks insects from their nests.

Sloth bears lead solitary lives, and most are nocturnal. (In protected areas, they may be active during the day.) If threatened, these smallish bears will stand on two legs, brandishing their clawed forepaws as weapons.

A Few Sloth Bear Neighbors:

Bengal tiger (Panthera tigris tigris): At the top of the forest food chain, this mighty, endangered cat slinks through the shadows in search of spotted deer and other prey, which sometimes includes sloth bears.
Gaur (Bos frontalis)
: A massive, forest-dwelling wild ox that lives in small herds and feeds in clearings at night.
Lion-tailed macaque (Macaca silenus): An endangered, black-coated monkey with a distinctive gray mane and dangling tail. Troops of 12 to 20 inhabit tropical evergreen forests in India's Western Ghats mountains.
Great pied hornbill (Buceros bicornis)
: A vulture-sized black, white, and cream-colored fruit-eating bird with a massive, toucan-like bill.

Fun Facts:

Sloth bears are the only bears to carry young on their backs.

sloth bear clawsIn 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.

By Howard Youth

ZooGoer 28(2) 1999.
Copyright 1999 Friends of the National Zoo.
All rights reserved.