Meet the Smithsonian's National Zoo's bears!
Andean bears have unique facial markings. They can be very mild (nearly all black) to a bold cream color that encircles their eyes — hence their nickname “spectacled bear” — and continues down their chest.
These markings are unique, just like our fingerprints. They also help our keepers tell the Zoo’s bears apart! Billie Jean has a triangle shape on her forehead, Quito has a hook over one eye and Brienne has a lightning bolt on her forehead.
What are their personalities like?
Just like people, each of our Andean bears has their own unique personality. They are so fun to get to know! It takes some time to develop a relationship with an animal and truly know their personality.
When Brienne first arrived, she was cautiously curious and aloof. In exploring her habitat, though, her curiosity got the better of any fear she may have had. Now that she has settled in, she is much more daring. Keepers often see her running along the edges of the rockwork in her habitat or taking a nap way up high in the tree canopy.
Brienne's grandmother, Billie Jean, is the "queen bee" of the Andean bear habitat!
Quito is a "young gentleman" and has an endearing personality. He is eager to interact with his keepers and often entertains himself by playing with his enrichment toys.
What does an Andean bear's diet look like?
The bears get a variety of fruits, including apples, pears, mangoes, papayas and melons. Keepers also offer sweet potatoes and root vegetables. Hardboiled eggs, frozen-thawed fish and nuts are a staple of the bears’ diets as well.
What enrichment do they receive?
Like all bears, Andean bears are very intelligent. It can be a challenge to keep them entertained!
Keepers want to encourage the bears to explore their habitats, so they will place tires, kegs and boomer balls inside for Billie Jean, Quito and Brienne to pick up, play with and toss around.
Puzzle feeders are another favorite item of the bears; keepers fill them with pieces of fruit, vegetables, fish and nuts. The bears have to shake, roll and knock the toys around to get the treats out. This gives them a cognitive workout, too, as they need to think about how to get the treats from the feeders into their stomachs!
"They are all very inquisitive and intelligent" says animal keeper Sara Colandrea. "When we present them with enrichment items, I can see their minds at work, figuring out how to get them apart."
Keepers also sprinkle spices or spray extracts around the bears' habitat. When Billie jean, Quito and Brienne find them, they rub the substance all over their bodies — a behavior called scent-anointing!
How do zoos breed Andean bears?
There are just under 40 Andean bears in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums' Species Survival Plan (SSP). As the studbook keeper and SSP coordinator, Colandrea keeps track of all the Andean bears in the North American SSP—details about where they live, how they are related and information about their personalities, temperament and health.
Using that information, she makes recommendations about which bears should breed to ensure zoo populations are as genetically diverse as possible. In addition to helping facilitate movement between zoos, Colandrea serves as the “go to” person for any facility that needs information about exhibiting, breeding, or cub rearing these bears.
The majority of what we know about Andean bears comes from zoos like ours that study Andean bear behavior, health and reproduction. For example, if our animal care teams can pinpoint exactly when a female bear is in estrus and correlate that to specific behaviors, they can put bears together for breeding at the optimal time. Hopefully, this will increase the rate of successful conception and result in more cub births. Our animal care staff and researchers hope to determine the conditions that result in a successful pregnancy and, ultimately, cubs. Meantime, they are sharing the knowledge gained from their current studies with colleagues who want to breed Andean bears, too.
Where do Andean bears sleep?
Andean bears are masters at building nests in trees! They will bend branches such that they look like giants birds’ nests in the canopy. These nests are perfect for napping and serve as a platform for picking fruit off flowering trees.
"Watching them build nests and create beds for themselves is fascinating," Colandrea says. "They take such care to place the browse (leafy branches) and hay the way they like it and fluff it up just so before they sleep."
Where do Andean bears come from?
Andean bears are the only bear native to South America, and they live in the Andes mountain range in Peru, Venezuela, and Bolivia, among other countries. The International Union for Conservation of Nature considers them vulnerable to extinction.
Most people are familiar with giant pandas, polar bears and black bears. Andean bears are one of only eight bear species in the world. Although they are less common than some bear species, they are critically important to their ecosystem.
I want to help Andean bears! What can I do?
One very simple action you can do at home to help Andean bears is to purchase food or beverages that are sustainably sourced (such as the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center’s Bird Friendly Coffee®). If Andean bears live at a zoo near you, you can support that facility’s research and conservation programs, which help not only the animals within those facilities, but also those in their native habitats. You can also spread the word, share their stories and inspire others to learn about and fall in love with these charming and charismatic bears.
"I hope that meeting Brienne, Billie Jean and Quito will open people's eyes to how wonderful Andean bears are and motivate them to care about their conservation." Colandrea says.