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Eating Human Food Could Cause Profound Change In Black Bears, Researchers Find

Hibernating mammals enter a state of torpor, which helps them survive harsh conditions and food shortages.
Hibernating mammals enter a state of torpor, which helps them survive harsh conditions and food shortages.

Researchers studying wild black bears have found that eating human food could have a deep impact on the animals’ bodies.

Ecologists tracked 30 wild black bears around Durango, Colorado over a few summers and winters. They also tested their hair and blood.

They found that bears that foraged more on human food hibernated for shorter periods of time.

When animals hibernate, they enter a state of torpor, in which body temperature goes down and metabolic rates slow. It helps them survive harsh conditions and food shortages. Research in other mammals, like mice and hamsters, has shown this process actually slows the speed at which cells age.

As the researchers write in the journal Scientific Reports, that might explain why the bears that hibernated less in this current study also showed signs of faster cellular aging.

They conclude that eating human food could potentially shorten a bear’s lifespan by counteracting the benefits of hibernation.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado. 

Copyright 2021 KUNC. To see more, visit KUNC.

Rae Ellen Bichell is a reporter for NPR's Science Desk. She first came to NPR in 2013 as a Kroc fellow and has since reported Web and radio stories on biomedical research, global health, and basic science. She won a 2016 Michael E. DeBakey Journalism Award from the Foundation for Biomedical Research. After graduating from Yale University, she spent two years in Helsinki, Finland, as a freelance reporter and Fulbright grantee.
Rae Ellen Bichell
I cover the Rocky Mountain West, with a focus on land and water management, growth in the expanding west, issues facing the rural west, and western culture and heritage. I joined KUNC in January 2018 as part of a new regional collaboration between stations in Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Utah and Wyoming. Please send along your thoughts/ideas/questions!
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