Using Stable Isotopes to Assess Longitudinal Diet Patterns of Black Bears (Ursus americanus) in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

TitleUsing Stable Isotopes to Assess Longitudinal Diet Patterns of Black Bears (Ursus americanus) in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Publication TypeThesis/Dissertation
Year of Publication2011
AuthorsVan Manen, Jennapher Teunissen
Academic DepartmentWildlife and Fisheries Science
Date PublishedMay
UniversityUniversity of Tennessee
Place PublishedKnonxville, TN
Thesis TypeMasters of Science
SubjectsBlack bears -- Food, Wildlife management

Long-term diet patterns based on stable isotope analysis may be helpful to understand changes in food selection of black bears (Ursus americanus) over time and guide management programs to reduce human-bear conflicts. An enriched stable carbon isotope signature indicates an anthropogenic food source in the diet and an enriched nitrogen signature indicates a higher tropic level for a species. I examined longitudinal feeding patterns from 117 hair samples of black bears live captured in Great Smoky Mountains National Park during 1980–2001 using stable carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis from hair samples. I developed a set of a priori models to examine if sex, age class, year, weight class, total hard mast index, white oak index (Quercus spp.), red oak index (Quercus spp.), nuisance status and hog harvest (Sus scrofa) affected stable isotope signatures. I used model averaging and an estimator of the unconditional variance was used to account for model uncertainty. The δ[delta]13C signatures differed by weight class with above average weight, (ß[Beta] = 0.76‰; 95% CI = 0.28 to 1.23) and average weight (ß[Beta] = 0.42‰; CI = 0.06 to 0.78) showing enriched values compared to below average bears. Bears had enriched δ[delta]15N signatures in years with low white oak mast production (ß[beta] = -0.19, CI = -0.34 to -0.03) and depleted when white oak hard mast was abundant. Sub adult bears had enriched δ[delta]15N signatures compared to adult and older adult bears. Variation of nitrogen values was small during 1980–1991 ( = 2.57, SD = 0.28) but increased substantially during 1992–2000 ( = 2.29, SD = 0.71) when there was substantial variation in hard mast production. Bears in better physical condition appear more likely to access anthropogenic food sources. In years of low white oak acorn production, the larger bears and sub adult bears are more likely to turn to alternative food sources. The long term variation detected in this study is important in identifying which bears are potentially more likely to seek out the anthropogenic food sources when changes occur in availability of natural foods.