An Andean bear stands on a mountain amidst yellow and green fauna

Andean bears are also called spectacled bears because of the light markings around their eyes, which look like oversized glasses. Each bear has a unique pattern of light fur on its head, throat and chest. © Tim Hopwood/Tim J Hopwood Images

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Using genomic research to save the elusive Andean bear

Despite its fame thanks to Paddington Bear, the Andean bear remains a mystery. The Museum is using genomic research to learn about these large, secretive mammals and how to protect their home.

Endemic to South America, the Andean bear is the last remaining short-faced bear in the world.

It is usually found in humid forests and páramos high in the Andes, which run along the entire west coast of the continent.

Over the last century, the Andean bear population has fragmented and declined significantly.

The main culprit is habitat loss caused by deforestation, farming, mining and urbanisation, but hunting, poaching and human conflict also contribute.

Camilo Chacon-Duque, a Colombian geneticist and postdoctoral researcher at the Museum, says, 'Andean bears are large mammals that need a lot of space, but farming and cattle ranching have encroached in their environment.

'When the bears venture out of their decreasing habitat range, they sometimes end up on farmlands. The farmers often think the bears will eat their crops or cattle and shoot them.'

A foggy mountainous landscape

The alpine tundra ecosystem, also known as a páramo, is home to the Andean bear. Found above the forest line, it is a biodiversity hotspot and an important source of freshwater for a densely populated part of Colombia. © Camilo Chacon-Duque.

GROW Colombia

GROW Colombia is a large collaborative international project funded by the UK government and led by Professor Frederica Di Palma at the Earlham Institute.

The project aims to create lasting biodiversity conservation, as well as find sustainable ways of using natural material in Colombia. This will ultimately establish and maintain long-term socio-economic development in the country.

As an official partner of GROW Colombia, the Museum is working on one of its several research programmes, the conservation of the Andean bears.

This is in collaboration with Instituto Humboldt in Colombia and supported by National Parks of Colombia and Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). The latter two organisations have been working on the conservation of Andean bears in Colombia for many years.

Genetic diversity of Andean bears

Very little is known about the history and evolution of the Andean bear. For instance, scientists do not know much about the structure of the populations.

Some populations may have been separated for thousands of years due to geographical barriers, while others may be the result of more recent events caused by human activity.

Camilo is trying to find out whether the Andean bear population was fragmented due to humans and what the consequences may be on a genetic level.

'When there are small, isolated populations, they may be forced to reproduce with relatives,' explains Camilo.

'This can speed up changes in genetic variation and result in cubs with lower genetic diversity. This means the next generation will be less resilient to environmental changes and diseases.'

The research is using cutting-edge genomic technology, which has never been done before with Andean bears and is rarely accomplished in a developing country.

An Andean bear skull

The bears are poached for supposed medicinal and spiritual uses. The bones are used in concoctions as an aphrodisiac, to increase strength and cure common colds. The fat is made into 'bear butter' to relieve aches and pains, and body parts are kept for protection against evil spirits. © Camilo Chacon-Duque.

Fresh samples, including hair left on sticky tapes wrapped around trees and faeces, found on tracks were collected on location, while bone and skin samples were gathered from various museums in Colombia.

The samples were bought to the UK where they will be used to map the genomic history of Andean bear populations.

Doing this allows for powerful and highly accurate analyses to take place. It will also form the basis of the entire investigation and provide an invaluable resource to future research and conservation efforts.

How genomic research is helping the conservation of Andean bears

If bears from different populations are genetically incompatible, reuniting them may cause more problems.

But if it looks like they will thrive, individuals from different populations could eventually be brought together.

This could be done by creating natural forest corridors for the bears to travel through, or by translocating bears from one population to another.

Genomic research allows scientists to assume the consequences of habitat changes on bear populations more accurately. This could help to spot populations in more critical circumstances.

'Museum samples offer snapshots of genetic diversity at a given time,' says Camilo. 'It helps us understand what populations were like before the landscape changed and how genetically endangered they are in the present.'

A baby Andean bear looks into the distance

Andean bears feed mostly on vegetation, including fruits and various plant parts. Occasionally, they will tuck into small animals such as rodents, birds and insects. If food is scarce, they may eat deer and cattle, but this is rare and only makes up about 5% of their diet. © Smithsonian's National Zoo/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

'Museum collections are very valuable for this type of research,' continues Camilo. 'Not just at a basic level of understanding the ecology, evolution and genetic history of a species but also for informing present and future conservation strategies and policies.'

Andean bears are considered an umbrella species. This means that conserving the bear will protect its vast habitat, which indirectly preserves both the many other species that share the same area and the river basins that provide fresh water for local communities.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature currently lists Andean bears are listed as vulnerable.

'This is a great time to try and save them,' says Camilo. 'When animals are critically endangered, it's almost too late as there are very few left in the wild.'

Colombia has some of the highest biodiversity in the world, with many species endemic to the country.

Using genomics and collections to support the conservation of the Andean bear is a pioneering initiative and could lead to the Museum working on other similar projects in future.