Sun Bears Are Not Humans in Disguise, but They Deserve to Go Viral Anyway

Learn five reasons the ursines are so amazing, including their ten-inch-long tongues

a bear walks along a rock in the foreground, with zoo visitors behind a fence in the background
A sun bear at the Hangzhou Zoo in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China, on August 1, 2023. CFOTO / Future Publishing via Getty Images

The bear stands on its hind legs with what some might call suspiciously good posture. With its front two paws in the air, back erect, the creature looks from side to side across a crowd of zoo visitors. On its rear, folds of skin bunch together in a way that resembles a human wearing baggy pants.

Captured on video last week, this scene at the Hangzhou Zoo in China has launched an internet rumor that spread like wildfire: that the bear was actually a human in disguise.

In response, the zoo issued a statement in the voice of the bear, which is named Angela.

“Some people think I look too human when I stand up,” read the statement, per the New York Times’ Alan Yuhas and Chang Che. “It seems you really don’t understand me. Previously, some visitors even thought I was too petite to be a bear! I want to emphasize again: I am a Malayan sun bear! Not a black bear! Not a dog! A Malayan sun bear!”

In the past, keepers at Chinese zoos have dressed in giant panda costumes while tending to those animals, a choice meant to calm the bears. In other cases, some zoos in China have faced criticism for dyeing dogs to look like wolves or replacing a lion with a Tibetan mastiff, per NBC News’ Larissa Gao.

But the bear in question is definitively not a human, experts say. A zoo employee told a Beijing TV station that “a human in a leather and fur suit would pass out in a few minutes” in the 104-degree-Fahrenheit summer heat of Hangzhou, per the Washington Post’s Lyric Li.

As for the skin folds on the bear’s behind, they protect the animal against predators—it could shield them from deep bites or help them escape from a fight more easily.

Internet skeptics believe China zoo animals are just people in costumes

The whole viral controversy goes to show how little people actually know about these animals, wildlife biologist Wong Siew Te, founder of the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center in Malaysia, tells the Post.

“Not enough people know about sun bears—they are a very forgotten species,” Wong says to CNN’s Heather Chen, Wayne Chang and Mengchen Zhang.

Indeed, among all eight bear species on the planet, Malayan sun bears are the least studied. But they’re also highly threatened, put at risk by habitat destruction and illegal poaching.

With rumors and speculation circulating online, take a moment to check out these real facts about Malayan sun bears.

1. Malayan sun bears are the smallest bears in the world.

The four- to five-foot-long bears grow to weigh only 60 to 150 pounds. For comparison, black bears might weigh up to 550 pounds, grizzly bears could weigh more than 700 pounds and the largest polar bears clock in at a whopping 1,700 pounds.

Sun bears earned their name for the white or yellow patch of fur on their chests, which can be interpreted as a bib, a crescent or the rising sun. Among these bears, each individual’s marking is unique, according to the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center.

2. Their tongues are the longest of any bear.

a sun bear behind a chain link fence raises one paw and sticks out its long tongue
A Malayan sun bear has the longest tongue of any bear species. TANG CHHIN SOTHY / AFP via Getty Images

At nearly ten inches, a Malayan sun bear’s tongue is “almost comically long,” writes National Geographic. This makes it the lengthiest tongue of any bear, and the species even holds the Guinness World Record for this feat.

The gangling appendage comes in handy for pulling honey out of bee hives. As a result of this skill, the species has been nicknamed the “honey bear,” or “beruang madu,” in Malaysia and Indonesia, per CNN.

Beyond honey, these omnivorous mammals nosh on fruits, such as figs and berries, as well as insects, including termites, beetles and ants.

3. Sun bears play a role in maintaining forest health.

As fruit-eaters, sun bears disperse seeds, helping plants to take root in new locations. And by gobbling up termites, they control the insects’ population—a benefit to trees.

They have claws that can exceed four inches in length, which they use to root through dirt in search of invertebrates, or to tear through trees in search of honey. Once a sun bear opens a hole in a tree, other animals might move in and make a nest, such as flying squirrels or hornbills.

4. Illegal trade and poachers have decimated sun bears’ numbers.

The Malayan sun bear is vulnerable to extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Its numbers are decreasing, but the size of the wild adult population is unknown.

Though the bears still populate several countries in south and southeast Asia, their population has dropped dramatically: In the last 30 years, conservationists think the bears’ numbers have dropped by 30 percent, according to the World Wildlife Fund. They have gone locally extinct in Singapore, and their presence is not certain in China, per the IUCN.

Deforestation is a major threat to the bears, and poachers hunt them for their lucrative body parts. Sun bears’ gall bladders are used in some Chinese folk medicine, and their paws are a high-end delicacy. Another major threat to the bears is the bile trade in China and Vietnam, which extracts the digestive fluid from the live animals for use in lotions, eye drops or injected medicines. Sometimes, mother bears are killed and cubs are taken for the pet trade.

However, sun bears have some hope—conservationists work to raise awareness about the animals’ plight, as well as rescue and rehabilitate individual bears. The Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center is currently caring for 43 of the bears, per CNN.

5. Sun bears do not hibernate. (Or go into torpor.)

Unlike the brown bears and black bears in North America, sun bears do not hibernate for the winter. (Or, since bears don’t technically hibernate—their body processes, such as their heart rate, do not decrease enough to qualify them as hibernators—it’s more correct to say that sun bears don’t go into torpor.)

This means the bears are active year-round and able to mate and reproduce at any time. When they do, the female bear makes a ground nest and raises one or two cubs. These small, blind babies weigh just 11 ounces at birth—that’s only a little less than a can of soup.

Sometimes, mother sun bears pick up their young with their front two “arms” and walk around on their two hind “legs.” It’s a move that looks shockingly human—maybe enough to make someone think the creature is a person in disguise.

“I guess that’s why people get mistaken,” Wong tells CNN.

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