A black bear and her three cubs likely died suddenly in a church parking lot after eating a poisonous ornamental shrub, wildlife officials say.
The deaths of the bears, discovered outside St. Monica's church in West Wyoming, Pennsylvania, on Dec. 6, had been investigated as suspicious after no physical injuries or other signs of trauma were found on their bodies. There was also no sign of thrashing or stumbling in the area, suggesting they died suddenly.
The unusual discovery prompted the West Wyoming Borough Police Department and Pennsylvania Game Commission to ask for the public's help in submitting tips on how the bears may have died.
However, post-mortem examinations and toxicological tests of the sow and one of her cubs revealed that the likely cause of death was the English yew plant, a common ornamental shrub native to Europe, Africa, and southwest Asia, the game commission announced this week.
All species of yew contain the alkaloid compound "taxine," which is highly toxic to most animals if ingested. Parts of the plant were found in the stomachs of the bears that were examined, officials said.
The plant is common in landscaping across the northeast, particularly in urban areas, such as where the four bears had been frequenting as they prepared to fatten up and den for the winter.
Still, officials said they had never heard of a yew-related cause of death for a bear.
"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 Ternentn said in a statement. "This unfortunate occurrence was extremely rare and one we hope will not be repeated."