All in the Family
Meet Alba, an Andean bear carrying on the legend of her grandmother, Miss Houdini.
BY Peggy Scott
Photography by Ken Bohn
Videography by Victor Schwanke
When you’re descended from what could be considered Zoo royalty, it can be difficult to escape your family’s shadow. That is, of course, unless you happen to be a smart and sassy little Andean bear named Alba. Alba came to the Zoo late last spring. While she has some very well-known paw prints to fill, she also has the spirit and personality to shine all on her own.
Because of year-round food availability, Andean bears do not hibernate.
A “Grand” Tradition
“Alba is the granddaughter of Miss Houdini and Tommy,” says Hali O’Connor, a senior keeper at the Zoo. “And she certainly takes after her grandmother!” As longtime Zoo members and visitors will recall, Miss Houdini was a Zoo superstar in the 1980s–2010s, earning her name via daring escape attempts. Her first adventure resulted in an unexpected face-to-face with an equally surprised, 2,000-pound sea lion named Charlie. When she wasn’t plotting her next caper—even though keepers had bear-proofed her exhibit—Houdini divided her time between raising her cubs (she was a supermom), building nests that became the stuff of legends, and scolding her mate, Tommy, who outweighed her, but given her vocalizations, clearly didn’t outrank her.
Since Alba is barely two years old, she won’t be dealing with mates and cubs for a while, as bears breed for the first time when they are between four and seven years old. But she is keeping her paws busy in the meantime. “She is initially cautious of new things, but once she makes up her mind, she loves to ‘test’ things—throw them, take them apart, whether it’s her feeder puzzle or the clamps on her climbing structure,” Hali says. “She loves to make things move, which includes testing her climbing structure, moving logs and large rocks, and throwing objects in her pool.” Along with a taste for mischief, Alba inherited several of her grandmother’s talents—especially when it comes to arranging her sleeping accommodations. “We give her all sorts of materials, like branches, to build whatever she wants,” Hali says. “And she’s a born nest builder. We’ve even seen her bouncing up and down on the pile, flattening her nest to be just right—just like Miss Houdini used to do. We call it ‘Hoo-hopping.’ It’s really cute.”
Andean bears have 13 pairs of ribs—one set fewer than other bears.
Quite the Spectacle
While nest building may not seem like a very bearlike habit, this skill is important to Andean bears. They make their home in the Andean countries of South America, from Venezuela to Bolivia, living in humid and dry forests and high-altitude grasslands. These arboreal animals use their long, sharp front claws to climb and forage for food. Their front legs are longer than their rear legs, making them excellent climbers. A midsize bear species, Andean bears measure four to six feet long, standing two to three feet tall at the shoulder. Females rarely weigh more than 180 pounds, while males can tip the scales at over 300 pounds.
Andean bears are the only bears known to eat bromeliads.
In their forest homes, they build leafy platforms in the trees, which they use for sleeping or a place to enjoy a snack. Andean bears are mainly plant eaters, dining on fruit, bromeliads, and palms, and they may be the most vegetarian members of the bear family, aside from the bamboo-eating giant panda. Those living in scrubland habitat are even known to eat cactuses! At the Zoo, Alba’s favorite foods include fruits such as whole melons, carrots, and treats like peanuts and raisins.
The Andean bear is also known as the spectacled bear, for the rings of white or light fur around its eyes, which can look like eyeglasses (or spectacles) against the rest of the bear’s black or dark brown fur. These markings often extend down the chest, giving each bear a unique appearance and helping researchers identify individual bears by their “mug shots.” The markings also give the bear its scientific name: Tremarctos ornatus, or “decorated bear.” As the only bear species native to South America, perhaps it should also be called the Paddington Bear, since the beloved children’s book character is said to have come all the way from “darkest Peru.”
Andean bears are the only bears found in South America.
While Andean bears are solitary by nature, Alba seems quite interested in what’s going on next door. Turbo, the Zoo’s adult male Andean bear, occupies the exhibit next to Alba’s, and as Hali says, “They are quite aware of each other.” While an actual introduction is not in the immediate plans, keepers are cleverly satisfying the bears’ curiosity by swapping their toys so they can smell each other, letting them see each other from a protected, safe distance, and even allowing them to explore the other’s living areas. “They coo to each other, and some interest is there,” Hali says. “But we are very careful about following a process. You don’t just open a door.”
Each day, Alba follows a morning routine of trying to disassemble her enrichment items and romping, then taking a much-earned siesta. “She plays hard, and she sleeps hard,”
Hali says. “She loves her hammock—she’s on her second one!” Like Miss Houdini, Hali says, Alba is always thinking and plotting. Apparently, keeping busy—and trying to dream up new adventures—really runs in the family!
Meat constitutes only five percent of the Andean bear’s diet.
Helping Bears in Peru
Andean bears in the wild are facing several threats, notes Russ Van Horn, Ph.D., a scientist with San Diego Zoo Global’s Applied Animal Ecology Division. “The primary challenges for Andean bear conservation are thought to be habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, and climate change,” explains Russ, who leads our Andean bear conservation program. “These bears also sometimes damage crop fields and hunt cattle, which creates conflict with local farmers that sometimes results in a dead bear.”
As Russ points out, no one knows for sure how many of these bears remain, but Andean bear habitat is being lost at a rate of about two to four percent per year, destroyed for mining operations, farming, and lumber, and this loss is not slowing down. The construction of new roads fragments bear habitat as well. As their habitat shrinks, bears may stray onto farmland, feeding on the crops to replace their natural diet.
Because these bears now live primarily in dense mountain forests where there are few roads, they’re difficult to study, Russ notes.
“We primarily use a variety of indirect methods, or noninvasive methods,” he says. “That means we try to collect information without ever handling the bears. Some of the most important tools we use are trail cameras, or camera traps. In photos from these cameras, we can identify individual Andean bears, because the markings on their faces and necks vary between bears. It’s very rare to see an Andean bear with markings that really do look like spectacles, although some people do call them spectacled bears. Camera trap photos allow us to do more than just identify and count individual bears: we can also estimate the ages of bears in photographs, because their noses change color as they age.
By knowing the ages of bears in a population, we can see whether survival rates change at different ages, or among populations.”
Andean bears living in zoos are doing their part to help their wild brethren. “Our Andean bear conservation program uses information from zoo Andean bears to improve our ability to gather information on wild bears,” Russ explains. “This helps us better understand what wild bears do, and why.”