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dnaoodb: professional biology database , biology encyclopedia

In biological classification, Helarctos is a species in the family Ursidae (the only species in the genus Helarctos) occurring in the tropical forests of Southeast Asia. It is the smallest bear species, standing nearly 70 cm (28 in) at the shoulder and weighing 25–65 kg (55–143 lb). It is stockily built, with large paws, strongly curved claws, small, rounded ears and a short snout. The fur is generally short and jet black, but can vary from grey to red. The sun bear gets its name from its characteristic orange to cream-coloured chest patch. Its unique morphology—inward-turned front feet, flattened chest, powerful forelimbs with large claws—suggests adaptations for climbing.

Scientific classification

Protection level:
Named by and Year:
Horsfield, 1825
Subphylum Vertebrata
Class Mammalia


The Helarctos is named so for its characteristic orange- to cream-coloured, crescent-like chest patch. The generic name Helarctos comes from two Greek words: ήλιος (hēlios, related to the sun) and αρκτος (arctos, bear). Another name is honey bear, beruang madu in Malay and Indonesian, in reference to its habit of feeding on honey from honeycombs. "Honey bear" can also refer to the kinkajou.


The Helarctos is the smallest of all bear species. It is stockily built, with large paws, strongly curved claws, small rounded ears and a short snout. The head-and-body length is between 100 and 140 cm (39 and 55 in), and the shoulder height is nearly 70 cm (28 in). Adults weigh 25–65 kg (55–143 lb). The snout is grey, silver, or orange. The fur is generally jet black, but can vary from grey to red. The hair is silky and fine, and is the shortest of all bear species, suiting its hot tropical habitat. The characteristic chest patch, typically U-shaped, but sometimes circular or spotlike, varies from orange or ochre-yellow to buff or cream, or even white. Some individuals may even lack the patch. Helarctos can expose the patch while standing on their hind feet as a threat display against enemies. Infants are greyish black with a pale brown or white snout and the chest patch is dirty white; the coat of older juveniles may be dark brown. The underfur is particularly thick and black in adults, while the guard hairs are lighter. Two whorls occur on the shoulders, from whence the hair radiates in all directions. A crest is seen on the sides of the neck and a whorl occurs in the centre of the breast patch. The edges of the paws are tan or brown, and the soles are fur-less, which possibly is an adaptation for climbing trees. The claws are sickle-shaped; the front claws are long and heavy. The tail is 3–7 cm (1.2–2.8 in) long. The sympatric Asian black bear has cream-coloured chest markings of a similar shape as those of Helarctos and different claw markings.

During feeding, the Helarctos can extend its exceptionally long tongue to extract insects and honey. The teeth are very large, especially the canines, and the bite force quotient is high relative to its body size for reasons not well understood; a possible explanation could be its frequent opening of tropical hardwood trees with its powerful jaws and claws in pursuit of insects, larvae, or honey. The head is large, broad and heavy in proportion to the body, but the ears are proportionately smaller; the palate is wide in proportion to the skull. The overall unique morphology of this bear, such as its inward-turned front feet, flattened chest, and powerful fore limbs with large claws, indicates adaptations for extensive climbing.

Distribution And Habitat

The sun bear is native to the tropical forests of Southeast Asia; its range is bound by northeastern India to the north and extends south to Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam to Brunei, Indonesia, and Malaysia to the south. Its presence in China was confirmed in 2017 when it was sighted in Yingjiang County of Yunnan Province. It is extinct in Singapore.

These bears dwell primarily in two main types of forests throughout their range - deciduous and seasonally evergreen forests to the north of the Isthmus of Kra, and nonseasonal evergreen forests in Indonesia and Malaysia. They are typically found at low altitudes, such as below 1,200 m (3,900 ft) in western Thailand and peninsular Malaysia, but this varies widely throughout the range; in India, larger numbers have been recorded at elevations up to 3,000 m (9,800 ft) than in low-lying areas, probably due to habitat loss at ground level. They occur in montane areas in northeast India, but may not extend farther north into the unfavourable and colder Himalayan region; their distribution might be restricted to the northwest due to competition with sloth bears. The sun bear is sympatric with the Asian black bear throughout the remaining areas in the mainland range featuring a mix of seasonal forest types, with monthly rainfall below 100 mm (3.9 in) for a long spell of 3–7 months. In mountainous areas, Asian black bears are more common than sun bears, probably due to scarcity of invertebrates on which to feed. The major habitats in southern Thailand and peninsular Malaysia are moist evergreen forests, with more or less unvarying climate and heavy rainfall throughout the year, and low-lying or montane dipterocarp forests. Mangroves may be inhabited, but usually only when they are close to preferred habitat types.

The sun bear tends to avoid heavily logged forests and areas close to human settlement. However, sun bears have been seen in farmlands, plantations and orchards, where they may be considered vermin. A survey in Lower Kinabatangan Segama Wetlands showed that sun bears were feared but were not common in oil palm plantations; Bornean bearded pigs, elephants and macaques were far more damaging to crops. Sun bears have been reported preying on poultry and livestock.

Fossil remains suggest its occurrence farther north during the Pleistocene; it may have occurred as far south as Java in the middle to Late Pleistocene. Fossils also known from the Middle Pleistocene of Thailand along with Stegodon, gaur, wild water buffalo, and other living and extinct mammals. Today, it has been eliminated from the majority of its erstwhile range, especially in Thailand; populations are declining in most of the range countries. It disappeared from Singapore during the 1800s and 1900s, possibly due to extensive deforestation. Sun bear populations appear to decrease in size northward from Sundaland, and numbers are especially low in the northern and western extremes of the range. This has possibly been the case since prehistoric times, and is not a result of human interference. The population density varies from 4.3 and 5.9 individuals/km2 (11 and 15 individuals/sq mi) in Khao Yai National Park to 26 individuals/km2 (67 individuals/sq mi) in the Harapan Rainforest in southern Sumatra.