The sloth bear, an insect-eating animal native to Nepal, exhibits only one behavior that is truly distinct from that of other bear species: the females carry their cubs (at least part-time) until the cubs are about nine months old, even though the cubs can walk on their own at six months. Cub-carrying also occurs among some other myrmecophagous (ant-eating) mammals; therefore, one explanation is that cub-carrying is necessitated by myrmecophagy, since myrmecophagy entails a low metabolic rate and high energy expenditure in walking between food patches. However, although polar bears’ locomotion is similarly inefficient, polar bear cubs walk along with their mother. Furthermore, the daily movements of sloth bears and American black bears which are similar in size to sloth bears and have similar-sized home ranges reveal similar travel rates and distances, suggesting that if black bear cubs are able to (26) keep up with their mother, so too should sloth bear cubs.
An alternative explanation is defense from predation. Black bear cubs use trees for defense, whereas brown bears and polar bears, which regularly inhabit treeless environments, rely on aggression to protect their cubs. Like brown bears and polar bears (and unlike other myrmecophagous mammals, which are noted for their passivity), sloth bears are easily provoked to aggression. Sloth bears also have relatively large canine teeth, which appear to be more functional for fighting than for foraging. Like brown bears and polar bears, sloth bears may have evolved in an environment with few trees. They are especially attracted to food-rich grasslands; although few grasslands persist today on the Indian subcontinent, this type of habitat was once wide spread there. Grasslands support high densities of tigers, which fight and sometimes kill sloth bears; sloth bears also coexist with and have been killed by tree-climbing leopards, (52) and are often confronted and chased by rhinoceroses and elephants, which can topple trees (53). Collectively these factors probably selected against tree-climbing as a defensive strategy for sloth bear cubs. Because sloth bears are smaller than brown and polar bears and are under greater threat from dangerous animals, they may have adopted the extra precaution of carrying their cubs. Although cub-carrying may also be adoptive for myrmecophagous foraging, the behavior of sloth bear cubs, which climb on their mother’s back at the first sign of danger, suggests that predation was a key stimulus.
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