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Saving the spectacled bear of deepest, darkest Colombia

It’s not a lack of marmalade sandwiches that threatens the spectacled bear, but fragmented habitats that have seen populations of South America’s only bear species decline. How will science at Earlham Institute help us to protect this elusive species?

September 10, 2019

It’s not a lack of marmalade sandwiches that threatens the spectacled bear, but fragmented habitats that have seen populations of South America’s only bear species decline. How will science at Earlham Institute help us to protect this elusive species?

From deepest, darkest Peru came a famous bear, which originally was going to come from Africa until someone told the author that there were, in fact, no bears in Africa. There is only one species of bear in South America, the Andean spectacled bear, which is what Paddington Bear must therefore be.

Even when present in high numbers, the Andean bear was always an elusive animal - living high among the Andes mountains. Their secretive existence has meant that we really don’t know much about them, and we lack the information necessary to help them survive in a rapidly changing world, where Paddington’s cousins are suffering from the effects of habitat destruction and increasing conflict with livestock farmers.

Adam Ciezarek of EI’s Haerty Group has been heading into deepest, darkest Colombia as part of the GROW Colombia project in order to track and investigate these iconic animals, using genetics and cutting edge technologies to learn about the hidden lives of spectacled bears to help with their conservation.

There are several names for the bear Tremarctos ornatus, including Andean Bear, Spectacled Bear, Jukumari and Oso Andino. It is the only surviving species of bear native to South America.

Andean Bear, also known as the Spectacled Bear, found in remote forests of Colombia and Peru
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There is only one species of bear in South America, the Andean spectacled bear, which is what Paddington Bear must therefore be.

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Bear necessities

Anyone who has watched the jungle book knows that bears love scratching their backs, and their thick skin gets itchy from time to time. As such, these bears being so elusive, one of the best ways to get DNA from them is to get it from hair left on simple traps using barbed wire (don’t worry, the bears love it, it feels to them like a scrubbing brush).

The collection of DNA is led by Mailyn Gonzales and Paola Pulido-Santacruz of Colombia’s incredible Humboldt Institute, which holds vast collections of samples from the megadiverse country, in collaboration with the National Natural Parks of Colombia.

The DNA is important, as we’re using this to get a reference genome sequence for the Andean bear, which will form the backbone of the work we are doing to better understand what’s happened to their population.

Our partners at the Natural History Museum can use their expertise to extract ancient DNA from bear skulls that have been kept in museums all over the world, from Colombia to the UK, and we can compare the DNA of these bears from living ones, to get an idea of how genetic diversity and population structure has changed throughout history.

This is important work, as many species that have suffered similar levels of habitat loss and drastic decline in numbers have also gone through harmful genetic bottlenecks which leave modern day populations with very low genetic diversity. This may make them more likely to become extinct, for example by making them prone to genetic diseases.

Knowing how human influence has affected Andean bear populations will help us to plan better strategies for their conservation, which is important for Colombia considering its status as “the guardian of los Andes”.

Adam will be giving a talk about his work on this magnificent mammal at the Norwich Science Festival this year on Monday 21 October: ‘Saving the spectacled bear of deepest, darkest Colombia’.

Postdoctoral Scientist Adam Ciezarek will be presenting his talk on the Saving the Spectacled Bear of Deepest, Darkest Colombia at Norwich Science Festival on Monday, 21 October

Adam Ciezarek talk on Saving the Spectacled Bear of Deepest, Darkest Colombia
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The DNA is important, as we’re using this to get a reference genome sequence for the Andean bear, which will form the backbone of the work we are doing to better understand what’s happened to their population.

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Night at the museum

A poem by Scientific Communications manager Pete Bickerton about the project:



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From the steep slopes of Colombian mountains

And the deepest, darkest forests of Peru

To the teeming vaults where natural history

Tells the tale of a point in time. Fixed

Samples pose, stuffed, ready to pounce, perused

By inquisitive passers by who stare at black eyes

Like drops of ink, ungazing, lifeless.

But their bearers still have tales to tell in their time,

Locked in ancient genetic code, safe in skin and bones,

Teeth in skulls, pads on paws, bring back hints

Of where those splayed claws once roamed

From generation to generation: gene flow

To glimpse a picture of Paddington’s past

And future, if, like many in the wild, he’ll last.

Night at the museum, in the moonlight cast,

Samples fixed in formaldehyde, pickled in jars,

Exist as dreams of nature bygone, undone,

But rich lives yet to be rerun.

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Article author

Peter Bickerton

Scientific Communications & Outreach Manager