Family of black bears found dead, common shrub plays role
Tuesday, December 27, 2016, 6:00 PM - Wildlife officials have determined the cause of death for a 300-pound black bear and her three cubs after the family was found dead in West Wyoming, Pennsylvania in early December.
The bears were located in the parking lot of a church on Dec. 6 by police. The Pennsylvania State Game Commission was notified and the deaths were considered suspicious as there were no obvious signs of external trauma or thrashing, which suggested the animals died suddenly.
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The West Wyoming Police department and the game commission asked the public for assistance in determining previous sightings of the bears. After post-mortem and toxicological testing of the sow and one of her cubs, it was revealed that the animals consumed leaves and seeds of an English yew.
"The English yew is a conifer native to Europe, Africa, and southwest Asia," explained the Pennsylvania Game Commission in a Facebook post. "The plant has lance-shaped leaves and produces a red berry-like cupped structure called an 'aril' that contains a single brown seed. It is widely cultivated in eastern North America as an ornamental shrub and often found in urban environments."
The plants contain a alkaloid compound called "taxine," which is highly toxic to most animal and humans if ingested, according to the game commission.
"Taxine is found in all parts of the yew except the fleshy part of the aril, with seeds containing the highest concentrations of the toxin," the Facebook post reads. "While yew are toxic year-round, toxin levels increasing during the winter months. Yew is cardiotoxic and impacts the heart's ability to beat properly."
English Yews are known to live for a very long time. For example, the Fortingall Yew is the oldest living tree in Great Britain. Located in the churchyard of the village of Fortingall in Perthshire, Scotland, experts estimate the tree is between 2,000 and 3,000 years old.
"Wildlife conservation officers and agency biologists encounter bears that have died from unusual causes every year, but this may be a first,” game commission bear biologist Mark Ternent said in a statement. “This unfortunate occurrence was extremely rare and one we hope will not be repeated."
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