School designs new 3D printed 'honeycombs' for sloth bears

Female sloth bear Ursula sucks honey from enrichment ball at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo (c)ZSL.jpgA pair of sloth bears at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo had a breakfast with an added dimension as zookeepers treated them to a honey-filled enrichment ball, created using a 3D printer.

The football-sized invention, which was 3D-printed using high-tech software, contains a honeycomb structure that the keepers filled with the bears’ favourite sticky food.

Being omnivorous, sloth bears (Melursus ursinus) will feast on fruit, flowers and insects but are also known to knock bee honeycombs down from trees,a habit that has earned them a nickname of ‘honey bears’.

To access the honey concealed inside the unique device, the two sloth bears – a male called Columbo, 19, and 16-year-old female Ursula – had to use their long, curved claws and powerful tongue.

The concrete-coated ball was specially designed and created by a class of Year 7 students from Aberdour School in Surrey, who kindly donated it to ZSL Whipsnade Zoo specifically for the sloth bears.

Zookeeper Graeme Williamson said: “Sloth bears’ claws are perfectly adapted for penetrating ant and termite mounds, which they dig holes in before sucking out the insects through a gap in their front teeth.

“This specially-designed enrichment ball is an ideal tool to provide food for the bears in a stimulating manner that encourages them to search for their snacks.

“Columbo and Ursula absolutely loved their new feeding ball, we let them have it as a breakfast treat and three hours later they were still sucking the remaining honey from it.

“Sloth bears are naturally inquisitive animals and enjoy discovering new things in their exhibits to play with, and their curiosity certainly piqued once they figured out that food was their reward!”

Sloth bears are categorised as ‘vulnerable’ according to the IUCN's Red List of Threatened Species, and due to threats including habitat loss, human conflict and poaching their populations are in decline.

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