A diet of human food, be it scraps foraged from the garbage or crops grown for our consumption, may be driving wild bears to an earlier grave.
New research has found that bears who eat human food ahead of winter tend to hibernate for a shorter period of time.
And this, in turn, has been associated with accelerated cellular aging.
The findings suggest the increased availability of human food may be working against wild populations in the long-term, potentially even having effects on the molecular level.
In a new study published to the journal Scientific Reports, researchers investigated how consumption of human food is affecting American black bears in the wild.
The team followed 30 female bears in the Durango, Colorado area between summer 2011 and winter 2015, keeping tabs on their eating habits and hibernation patterns.
‘Hibernation chronology is driven by individual energy balance, which is strongly linked to local weather conditions and food availability,’ the researchers note in the paper.
The new investigation revealed a possible link between human foods and winter hibernation – bears who ate more human food in the summer spent less time hibernating in the winter.
Human foods don’t just include table scraps, the researchers say.
Crops and livestock that would otherwise not be so readily available also contribute to their behavioral changes.
And, these changes ripple down to the cellular level.
‘Black bears with a greater reliance on human food subsidies were associated with having shorter hibernation lengths, and these shortened hibernation periods were associated with greater telomeric attrition,’ the researchers wrote.
‘Consequently, bears that use more food subsidies hibernate less and thereby appear to experience greater cellular aging.’
The latest findings add to a growing list of the consequences wildlife faces from the availability of human food, and provide previously unknown insight on the impacts of this diet on fitness and longevity.
‘Increased consumption of human foods by bears has been associated with increased body weights and fecundity, but also reduced survival (due to vehicle collisions, lethal management, etc.),’ the researchers say.
‘As a result, it has been suggested that urban areas may serve as an ecological trap.’