Like Pooh, the little honey-guzzling bears of Asia can communicate just as we do. Well, at least when it comes to copying each other’s facial expressions. Sun bears, the smallest bears in the world, have been shown to precisely mimic one another’s expressions, something only seen before in humans and gorillas.
Sun bears, also known as honey bears, measure 1.5 meters (4.9 feet) in length and weigh up to 80 kilograms (175 pounds) – pretty tiddly by bear standards. They are found throughout the tropical forests of Southeast Asia but are most widespread in the protected areas of Cambodia. The critters – which have bizarrely long termite-extracting tongues – are the rarest and least well known of the world’s bears.
Despite being solitary animals, sun bears can be particularly playful when they come into contact with each other. A team from the University of Portsmouth in the UK set out to examine their social behavior, studying 22 bears housed at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre in Malaysia. Here, the bears have big enough enclosures to choose whether they want to hang out with other bears or just have a bit of alone time.
The researchers recorded the bears’ facial expressions during playtime, distinguishing between two key types – displaying the upper incisor teeth vs keeping them covered. They found that during periods of gentle play, the bears were more likely to precisely mimic each other’s expressions.
“What’s most surprising is the sun bear is not a social animal,” said study author Dr Marine Davila-Ross. “In the wild, it’s a relatively solitary animal, so this suggests the ability to communicate via complex facial expressions could be a pervasive trait in mammals, allowing them to navigate their societies.”
The researchers believe this behavior may help the bears communicate that they want to play more roughly, or strengthen their social bonds. The findings are published in the journal Scientific Reports.
Two expression-mimicking sun bears in action. Taylor et al.
“Sun bears are an elusive species in the wild and so very little is known about them,” explained PhD candidate Derry Taylor. “We know they live in tropical rainforests, eat almost everything, and that outside of the mating season adults have little to do with one another.
“That’s what makes these results so fascinating – they are a non-social species who when face to face can communicate subtly and precisely.”
While further study is needed, the researchers believe that many other animals might possess the ability to copy each other’s facial expressions, perhaps even other solitary species.
Sadly, sun bears are declining, with population numbers dropping by 30 percent in the last 30 years. Like many forest-dwelling creatures, they are threatened by habitat destruction due to logging, and can also fall victim to poachers keen to get their hands on the adorable cubs for the illegal pet trade.
Like other Asian bear species, sun bears are also threatened thanks to demand for their gall bladders. The bile within them is used in traditional medicine, despite the fact it has scientifically been proven to have zero medicinal properties. Thousands of bears are kept in inhumane conditions on “bile farms”, where their bile is routinely extracted while they’re still alive.
Various conservation organizations are working hard to end this cruel practice and help the sun bear recover its numbers. Since we still have so much more to learn about the complex and fascinating lives of these elusive ursids, let’s hope they stick around.