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Bears may not be carnivores

Is it true?

By Gareth GeyerPublished 2 years ago 3 min read
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Bears are perceived as fierce carnivores, but a team from Washington State University recently studied the diets of giant pandas and sloth bears and found that bears are closer to omnivores. Bears also appear to need much less protein than they do in captivity in zoos.

"Bears are not strictly carnivores in the same way that cats eat high-protein foods," lead author Charles Robbins, a professor of wildlife biology at Washington State University, said in the university release. "In zoos, whether it's polar bears, brown bears, or sloth bears, we recommend feeding them like a high-protein carnivore, and when you do that, you're slowly killing them."

Despite incidents at the camp where bears would tear open any food they saw, the team noted that bears are not cats or dogs, and when humans feed them this way, it can cause them to develop diseases such as liver cancer, significantly shortening their lifespan.

In their experiment, the researchers provided giant pandas and sloth bears living in zoos with an unlimited supply of food containing different types of food. They then recorded the bears' choices to see what the animals liked.

The team, working with researchers at Texas A&M University and the Memphis Zoo, found that a pair of giant pandas preferred the carbohydrate-rich bamboo stalks found in the woody stalks. The animals chose this over the protein-rich leaves. The pandas ate this cum almost exclusively, including 98% of the time throughout March. Observations from five of our zoos also confirm this preference for giant pandas, which also eat a high-carbohydrate, low-protein diet.

Experiments with six sloth bears at the Cleveland, Little Rock and San Diego zoos also showed that the bears preferred fat-rich avocados to roasted yams, avocados and apples. Bears preferred avocados 88 percent of the time and yams 12 percent of the time, ignoring apples altogether. The team believes that this diet mirrors the diet of sloth bears that eat termites, ants, and their eggs and larvae in the wild.

Previous studies have found that polar bears in captivity also typically die 10 years earlier than they should. Most of them die from kidney or liver disease. These diseases usually develop as a result of chronic inflammation caused by an unbalanced diet.

The study authors say their findings suggest that when bears have a choice, they choose foods that mimic what they eat in the wild. Interestingly, these foods are not things that many people might associate with bears - like meat.

"There's certainly a long-standing idea that humans with PhDs know a lot more than sloth bears or brown bears," Robbins said. "All of these bears started evolving about 50 million years ago, and in terms of that aspect of their diet, they know more about it than we do. We're the first people willing to ask bears: What do you want to eat? What makes you feel good?"

Robbins, the founder of the Bear Center at Washington State University, began studying bear diets in Alaska while observing that grizzly bears would eat salmon. Until then, scientists thought grizzlies would eat salmon, sleep, and then go back for more fish. In reality, however, they found that grizzly bears would look around for berries after eating their first salmon meal.

All eight species of small bear-like animals (bears) share a common carnivore ancestor, say the authors of the study. Since then, bears have evolved to eat a wide variety of foods, which has allowed them to adapt to living in more areas.

"It just opened up more food resources than just being a pure high-protein carnivore," Robbins concludes.

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About the Creator

Gareth Geyer

The waterfall only looks particularly majestic when it crosses a treacherous steep wall.

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