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What Arkansas Bears Eat: Availability and Consumption

“Availability and Consumption of Foods and Importance of Habitats Used By Black Bears In Arkansas” by Daniel Clapp 1990.

By Clay Newcomb

This article gives detailed insight into what Arkansas bears eat and when they eat it.  This is valuable information for land managers, hunters and the people who just want to know!

Since the creation of Arkansas’ bear season in 1980, increased interest in the species has fueled the AGFC’s and the publics interest in learning more about bear. This study was done by Daniel Clapp and overseen by Dr. Kim Smith of the University of Arkansas. The study took place in 1988-89.  The study was designed to better understand what bears eat at different times of the year and the corresponding habitat they use to get it.  With an understanding of where bears ‘make their living’, land managers will be able to make educated decisions about bear habitat. Over the course of 2 years researchers gathered 339 bear scats and examined 18 stomachs of harvested bear.  The contents of the scats and stomachs were examined and findings were analyzed.  This article is a brief summary of the study.

Summary of Findings 

Black bear diets consist of roughly 85% plant matter.  The remaining 15% (approximate) is comprised of animal matter, primarily in the form of insects and insect larvae.  Throughout the year the diet of a bear changes with food availability.  The plant matter that bears eat could be grouped into three categories: soft mast, hard mast, herbaceous material. 

Soft Mast

Soft mast is a major player in a bears diet all throughout the growing season and into the fall. Soft mast in Arkansas includes: downy serviceberry, blackberry, blueberry, cherry, pokeweed berry, devil’s walkingstick berry (shown on the right), wild grape, blackgum fruit, persimmon fruit, virginia creeper berry, green briar berry, wild plum fruit, spice bush berry, sassafras berry, fringe tree berry, dogwood berry, mulberry, wild apple fruit and carolina buckthorn berry.

Of this soft mast, bears use them at different times of the year based upon the time of fruit ripening.  The first soft mast that ripens is the downy serviceberry in mid May.  These small understory trees are the first small white blossoms to appear in early spring forest.  The white blooms appear  before most trees have begun to leaf out. The second berries to ripen are the blackberries and blueberries.  These berries typically ripen in mid June and black bears in Arkansas depend heavily upon them as favorite foods.  The fourth soft mast to ripen are the wild cherries in mid July, followed by the pokeweed berries.  These also are highly preferred by bears in Arkansas.  In early August the wild grapes ripen, and by late August the blackgum have ripened.  Devil’s walkingstick ripens in mid September and is more prevalent in the Ozarks. Persimmons typically ripen in early to mid October and the carolina buckthorn ripens in November (shown below).  There are more soft mast species available, but these are the primary species of importance.

It was noted that Arkansas bears have a wider variety of soft mast available than in some other areas in North America. Arkansas soft mast is very important to bear as they attempt to gain as much fat reserves as possible for winter denning. The best areas for soft mast is on the edges of the forrest, often times on roadsides and in ‘clearcut’ areas. Bears eat the most variety of soft mast in the fall, presumably after all varieties have ripened and are available.

Hard Mast

The fall “hyperphagy”, or heightened fall feeding habits of bears, is one of their core biological activities. This hyperphagy revolves around the hard mast of the fall. Hard mast in Arkansas, is the ‘bread and butter’ of the bear’s biological success and is the highlight of their fat reserve efforts. The primary hard mast in Arkansas is acorns and hickory nuts. In the study acorns and hickory nuts were eaten through the fall, and left over nuts were consumed in the early spring.

Conclusion

The two main hickory nuts eaten by bears during the study were Mockernut and Shagbark Hickory.  The major oaks of importance are the white, post, black, blackjack and northern red oak.  Hard mast has a very high nutritional value to bears.  Most years, some type of hard mast will be produced in relative abundance. One account in this study, the author quoted another study in Arkansas. It stated that only 3 of 8 years was the mast crop considered abundant in Arkansas (during those observed years). On years with poor mast crop, bear typically go into the winter dens weighing less.  This can lead to less successful reproduction in bears. 

Herbaceous Material

Herbaceous material, classified as grasses, stems and leaves, is primarily eaten by bears soon after they emerge from the den. During the spring, fruits aren’t yet ripe and hard mast that made it through the winter is scarce. Bear’s will forage on new leaves, young stems and grasses. Their is little nutritional value in this material, but it is the only food available.

As carnivores, (also considered omnivores) bears have a simple digestive system that can’t break down some plant compounds like ungulates (deer).  Bears lack ‘caecum’ and have a very acidic stomach that will not support the microflora and microfauna to digest cellulose.  Their systems are inefficient at extracting nutrients from plant materials.  Weight loss can occur after bears emerge from their winter dens in mid to late April.

Animal Matter

Roughly 10-15% of a bears diet in Arkansas consists of animal matter. Of this animal matter a very high percentage is insects, primarily ants. During the growing season, almost every bear scat collected had ants in it. This would conclude why bears turn over rocks and logs so much, they are looking for insects.

Bears are known to hunt some animals but they also scavenge on dead animals if the conditions are right.  During the study this is a collection of what animal matter they found in bear scats: ant, beetle, walkingstick, honey bee, termite, whitetail deer, armadillo, opossum, gray squirrel and a bird.  The researchers concluded that they couldn’t tell if the bears caught these animals alive or if they found them dead.  On one account they found the remains of a whitetail deer fawn hoof.  They concluded the fawn was still born and was scavenged by the bear because of lack of hoof wear. However, other researchers have documented bears catching deer fawns in the spring.

Conclusion

The interior highlands of Arkansas offer a wide variety of foods for black bear. The success of bears here in Arkansas is primarily attributed to quality and abundance of habitat. With the wide variety of mast available, if one species fails to produce another will take its place of importance. Overall, we need to protect the quality habitat that remains here in Arkansas. Let’s keep the wild places wild.