Hope for threatened bear species
The world’s first golden-coloured spectacled bear – similar to the popular children’s book character Paddington Bear – has been observed during a research expedition in the Andes. The expedition, which was led by researchers at the University of Gothenburg, collected new knowledge about how the endangered bear species lives and can be protected.
They are rare, endangered and difficult to study. The spectacled bear (also known as Andean bears) is the only bear species in the southern hemisphere, and to date very little has been known about the shy bear that is said to be the model for the fictional Paddington.
Now a research team has collected new knowledge about the bear species during a five-month expedition to the Andes in Peru. It is the first expedition that has managed to study spectacled bears up close in the wild and for an extended period.
Surprised by unique golden fur
In addition to obtaining valuable information about the animals’ behaviour and population, the researchers made a surprising discovery. Among the spectacled bears, whose fur is black or dark brown, an individual with light golden brown fur was observed. It was strikingly similar to the popular children’s book character Paddington Bear.
“It is unusual with colour changes in bears, and this almost golden shade has, as far as we know, not been reported in any spectacled bear before. It was fantastic to see, and it looked just like Paddington in the movies,” says Wilhelm Osterman, a doctoral student in biology and environmental sciences at the University of Gothenburg and lead author of the research article on the expedition.
According to Osterman, it is not possible to say with certainty what is behind the colour change.
“It may be a genetic mutation, which may be a sign of inbreeding, for example, due to a declining population. But it can also be a completely random change.”
Small areas can be important for bears
During the expedition, the researchers saw significantly more bears than expected; 64 bear observations was made during the entire study – sometimes up to four individuals at the same time. By identifying bears from photos, the density of bears was calculated at about 10 per 100 square kilometres, which is a significantly higher density than previous studies have shown. The results are surprising because spectacled bears usually live scattered over large areas, and the researchers’ conclusion is that the bears were attracted to the area by the good supply of food.
“That the bears used a small area to search for food and that there were many bears there at the same time indicates that small areas can be crucial to protect the species in the long term. Identifying these areas and ensuring that they are not developed can become an important piece of the puzzle in a conservation strategy for the bears, which are threatened by deforestation and increased agriculture.”
Bears and people can coexist
He emphasises that it is a great advantage if sometimes it can be enough to protect smaller, especially important areas for the bears, as a larger reserve is not always an option.
“For local communities, it is easier to accept protecting a smaller area, and this increases the possibility of coexistence between the spectacled bear and people,” says Wilhelm Osterman, who emphasises that the threat to the declining bear population must be taken seriously.
“The spectacled bear is incredibly important for the ecosystem; it is an effective seed spreader and is of great importance for the vegetation. I hope that our study can be an important contribution to the work of preserving the spectacled bears.”
Text: Ulrika Ernström
Wilhelm Osterman, doctoral student at the University of Gothenburg, Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences.
Facts about spectacled bears
- Spectacled bears live in South America and are the largest predator on the continent. They are very shy and eat mainly plants, but also insects, birds and rodents.
- The spectacled bear is classified as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN).
- There are about 20,000 sexually mature individuals in the world. The number is steadily declining due to the disappearance of their habitats, e.g., due to expansion of agriculture.
- Paddington Bear is supposed to be a spectacled bear from Peru. Unlike Paddington, however, the spectacled bears’ fur is dark – with the exception of the unique, golden-coloured bear that researchers have now observed. Spectacled bears get their name from the fact that they have white markings on their fur that look like glasses around both eyes.
- The article on the research expedition’s conclusions, An Andean bear population hotspot in Northern Peru, has been published in the scientific journal Ursus
- The research expedition was conducted in the Copal region of the Andes in northern Peru, where researchers could study the spectacled bears from a plateau with an overview of an area where the bears came to search for food.
- The expedition was led by Wilhelm Osterman at the University of Gothenburg, in collaboration with a research group from Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg and Stony Brook University. The researchers also collaborated with a local NGO (non-governmental organization) in the study of the bears.