Physiological consequences of consuming low-energy foods: Herbivory coincides with a stress response in Yellowstone bears.

David Christianson, Tyler H. Coleman, Quint Doan, Mark A. Haroldson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Meat, fruit, seeds and other high-energy bear foods are often highly localized and briefly available and understanding which factors influence bear consumption of these foods is a common focus of bear conservation and ecology. However, the most common bear foods, graminoids and forbs, are more widespread but of lower quality. We poorly understand how herbage consumption impacts bear physiology, such as endocrine system function that regulates homeostasis and stress responses. Here, we described bear diets with a novel approach, measuring the concentration of chlorophyll in bear scats (faecal chlorophyll) to index the proportion of the recent diet that was composed of leaves from graminoids and forbs. We measured faecal chlorophyll and faecal cortisol in 351 grizzly (Ursus arctos, n = 255) and black bear (Ursus americanus, n = 96) scats from Yellowstone National Park in 2008-2009. We compared models of faecal chlorophyll and faecal cortisol concentrations considering the effects of spatial, dietary, scat and bear-specific factors including species. Faecal chlorophyll levels were the strongest predictor of faecal cortisol in a manner that suggested an endocrine response to a low-energy diet. Both compounds were highest during the spring and early summer months, overlapping the breeding season when higher energy foods were less available. Effects of scat composition, scat weathering, bear age, bear sex, species and other factors that have previously been shown to influence faecal cortisol in bears were not important unless faecal chlorophyll was excluded from models. The top models of faecal chlorophyll suggested grazing was primarily influenced by spatial attributes, with greater grazing closer to recreational trails, implying that elevated cortisol with grazing could be a response to anthropogenic activity. Our results confirm that higher stress hormone concentrations correspond with lower quality diets in bears, particularly grazing, and that faecal chlorophyll shows promise as a metric for studying grazing behaviour and its consequences.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbercoab029
JournalConservation Physiology
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2021

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Physiology
  • Ecological Modeling
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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