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Do black bears stink?

February 9, 2010 - 10:50 AM CST

How clean is Lily’s den and how does it smell?  Yesterday, we mentioned the fecal plug.  Some bears make less feces than others and can wait until emergence in spring to evacuate the plug, thus the statement that hibernating black bears can go all winter without defecating.  But some bears can’t wait that long.  Among them are near-term mothers who have pressure on the colon.  After nearly four months of hibernation, they have a build-up of feces in the colon by late January.  None of the bears soil the bed.  If it is a short den entrance like Lily’s, they have to exit.  If it is a long den entrance, we find the plug frozen near the entrance.

How does a black bear den smell?  Clean and fresh.  The smell is different than an empty hole.  A person can sniff the entrance of a suspected den and tell if it’s just earth or a bear in there.  But the light odor is pleasant, at least to us with a bias for bears.  Mothers have been eating and recycling the nutrients evacuated by cubs.  She’s been licking the cubs clean.  She has not been soiling the den herself.  There are no remains of food.  Her breath is clean and fresh.  It’s clean enough to crawl in and curl up.

So why do many people think bears stink?  Another misconception.  Occasionally, bears roll in smelly substances.  In mating season (May-June around here), mature males have a musky odor on the crown and back of the neck—the parts they rub on trees to leave scent.  Bears can have bad breath if they were hungry enough to eat carrion, but usually they eat fresh berries, nuts, vegetation, and insects and have perfect breath.

Do we dare reveal how strong our biases are for bears and say that we don’t think their feces stinks?  It’s true.  Unless they’ve been eating meat or a lot of insects, summer scats smell more like the berries they’ve been eating than anything else.  It’s not totally a berry smell because of some fermentation, the bile, intestinal cells, and digestive fluids, but the berries come through as a dominant odor.   The non-foul odor of most scats is good for us because scat analysis is part of bear research.  During our Black Bear Field Courses here, people are shocked when we pick up a piece of scat and smell it to see what the bear has been eating.  They’re surprised when they smell it themselves and find it’s nothing like they expected.

How can you find a better animal than that?

Thank you again for contributing to help with our debt and continuing bear education.  Thank you also for the names you are submitting.  With over 3500 entries already, we’re learning a lot about the meanings of names to use long into the future, if not for Lily’s cub.

Tomorrow: mother-cub bonding.

—Lynn Rogers and Sue Mansfield, Biologists, North American Bear Center

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