Bear cuscus (Ailurops ursinus)

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Adult bear cuscus
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Bear cuscus fact file

Bear cuscus description

KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassMammalia
OrderDiprotodontia
FamilyPhalangeridae
GenusAilurops (1)

Named for its soft, dense pelage of black-greyish, bear-like fur, the bear cuscus (Ailurops ursinus) is a peculiar, yet distinctive marsupial (3). Adapted for a life high in the canopy, the bear cuscus has curved and sharply pointed claws and a long prehensile tail (2). The head is broad and flattened, with small, inconspicuous ears and a short snout (3). In common with many other marsupials, the female bear cuscus has a well-developed forward facing pouch on its belly, in which the poorly developed young suckle (2).  

The bear cuscus was formerly considered conspecific with the Talaud bear cuscus (Ailurops melanotis), but marked differences in pelage and size suggest that they are indeed separate species. Currently, four subspecies of the bear cuscus are recognised, each occurring on separate islands (4).

Also known as
Bear phalanger, Sulawesi bear cuscus.
Synonyms
Phalanger ursinus.
French
Grand Couscous De Célèbes.
Size
Head-body length: up to 61 cm (2)
Tail length: up to 58 cm (2)
Weight
7 – 10 kg (3)
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Bear cuscus biology

Despite its relatively large size and distinctive appearance, very little is known about the biology of the bear cuscus. However, it is believed to be the only diurnal member of its family, emerging at dawn to actively forage amongst the canopy for a variety of fresh leaves. Rather than jumping between trees, like the more acrobatic primates, the bear cuscus moves slowly, but efficiently, methodically placing each footstep (3). However, the bear cuscus spends the majority of its time resting, possibly because of the low nutrient quality of its diet (6).  Related species are typically solitary; however, the bear cuscus is more often found in pairs (2) (3). Partners communicate and advertise their position to other cuscuses using vocalisations and olfactory communication, often depositing secretions from glands in the skin (2).   

The bear cuscus is probably monogamous, producing a single young at a time. In common with other marsupials, the infant is very poorly developed when born, and largely develops in a pouch on the mother’s belly, where it suckles her milk. The quality of the milk changes as the infant develops, initially being high in carbohydrates, and later rich in fat. This unique adaptation allows the young to grow quickly, and females may reach maturity immediately after weaning (2).  

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Bear cuscus range

The bear cuscus is found on the island of Sulawesi, Indonesia and the neighbouring islands of Sangihe, Salidabu, Butung, the Peleng Islands, the Togian Islands, and possibly Muna (1) (5).

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Bear cuscus habitat

The bear cuscus inhabits lowland moist tropical rainforests, up to 600 metres above sea level. It prefers undisturbed forest and rarely enters degraded habitats (1). On Sangihe, the bear cuscus is largely restricted to undisturbed primary forest surrounding an extinct volcanic crater (5).

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Bear cuscus status

The bear cuscus is classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List (1).

IUCN Red List species status – Vulnerable

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Bear cuscus threats

Favoured for its meat and fur, the bear cuscus is severely threatened by hunting. Despite once being common throughout its range, alarming declines of up to 95 percent have occurred in several areas, most notably the Tangkoko-DuaSudara Nature Reserve on Sulawesi (1). Surveys on Sangihe and Salidabu found that 57 percent of interviewed famers hunted the bear cuscus, using rifles, blowpipes and nets, and hunting is likely to have been the cause of several local extinctions. This threat is compounded by the logging and degradation of lowland rainforests, home to the bear cuscus (1) (5). Around 56 percent of Sulawesi was forested in 1988, but since then much of the lowland forests, growing upon fertile volcanic soils, have been cleared for agricultural projects, such as sugar-cane plantations. Consequently, much of the remaining forest is unsuitable for the bear cuscus, as it is at higher altitudes (7).

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Bear cuscus conservation

Although protected by Indonesian Law, and occurring in several protected areas, hunting and habitat loss continue to endanger the bear cuscus, and efforts are required to tackle the threats to this rare species (1). Proposed conservation measures include the creation of a special police task force responsible for monitoring hunting, the creation of additional protected areas, and the development of community awareness programmes, aiming to highlight the plight of the bear cuscus (5) (7).

The island of Sulawesi is an area of high conservation importance, with over 120 mammals species, 62 percent of which are endemic, and the protection of its forests will undoubtedly preserve the populations of many rare species. Recognising this, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) is working to promote legal enforcement and prevent wildlife trade through its Sulawesi Wildlife Crime Unit, and by monitoring major roads that connect wildlife markets to hunting-fields. With the Indonesian government, WCS is also providing training to park officials and is helping to develop management plans for protected areas (8).

View information on this species at the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre.
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Find out more

For more information on conservation in Sulawesi: 

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Authentication

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

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Glossary

Conspecific
Belonging to the same species.
Diurnal
Active during the day.
Endemic
A species or taxonomic group that is only found in one particular country or geographic area.
Marsupial
A diverse group of mammals characterised by their reproduction, in which gestation is very short, and the female typically has a pouch (marsupium) in which the young are raised. When born, the tiny young crawls to the mother’s teats, where it attaches and stays for a variable amount of time, whilst it continues to develop. Marsupials also differ from placental mammals in their dentition.
Monogamous
Having only one mate during a breeding season, or throughout the breeding life of a pair.
Olfactory
Concerned with the sense of smell.
Pelage
The coat of a mammal, composed of fur, hair or wool, covering the bare skin.
Prehensile
Capable of grasping.
Primary forest
Forest that has remained undisturbed for a long time and has reached a mature condition.
Subspecies
A population usually restricted to a geographical area that differs from other populations of the same species, but not to the extent of being classified as a separate species.
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References

  1. IUCN Red List (March, 2010)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. Macdonald, D.W. (2009) The Encyclopedia of Mammals. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  3. Nowak, R.M. (1999) Mammals of the World. The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.
  4. Wilson, D.E. and Reeder, D.M. (2005) Mammal Species of the World: A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference (third edition). The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.
  5. Riley, J. (2002) Mammals on the Sangihe and Talaud Islands, Indonesia, and the impact of hunting and habitat loss. Oryx, 36: 288-296.
  6. Dwiyahreni, A.A., Kinnaird, M.F., O’Brien, T.G., Supriatna, J. and Andayani, N. (1999) Diet and activity of the bear cuscus, Ailurops ursinus, in north Sulawesi, Indonesia, Journal of Mammology, 80: 905-912.
  7. BirdLife International EBA Factsheet (March, 2010)
    http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/ebas/index.html?action=EbaHTMDetails.asp&sid=167&m=0
  8. Wildlife Conservation Society (March, 2010)
    http://www.wcsip.org/
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Image credit

Adult bear cuscus  
Adult bear cuscus

© David J Slater / www.djsphotography.co.uk

David Slater
enquiries@djsphotography.co.uk
http://www.djsphotography.co.uk

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