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Purdue University
& Natural Resou Forestry and Natural Resources
stry r


Why Do Animals Eat the Bark and
Wood of Trees and Shrubs?
William R. Chaney, Professor of Tree Physiology
Department of Forestry and Natural Resources
Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN 47907

Animals gnawing the bark and wood of trees anatomy, movement and storage of food in trees,
and shrubs is not a malicious act or evidence of a and the variations in digestive systems among
neurotic condition. Instead, it is the normal means animals.
by which some animals acquire a nutritious food
source. The ability to consume this seemingly Constituents of Plant Cell Walls
unpalatable food supply and derive nourishment Unlike animals, plants have cells with rigid
from it requires specialized feeding habits and cell walls composed of cellulose, hemicellulose,
digestive systems. and lignins. Pectins help hold the individual cells
together in tissues. All of these substances are
potential sources of food for animals.


The most consummate wood feeders are the A principal component of cell walls is
billions of termites throughout the world that cellulose, which consists of 5,000 to 10,000
literally devour thousands of tons of woody glucose molecules joined by a so-called beta
debris every year in forests as well as lumber linkage to form straight chain polymers of pure
in buildings. Many of our most serious and sugar. The long chains of cellulose are combined
damaging insect pests are the bark beetles and first into microfibrils and then further into
wood borers that feed on the parts of trees for macrofibrils to create a mesh-like matrix of cell
which they are named. Even mammals ranging wall material, much like fibers twisted to make
in size from mice to elephants consume bark thread are used to weave cloth.
and woody branches. They all have specialized
digestive systems that allow them to extract Although cellulose is a pure carbohydrate,
nourishment from this material, something it is not a source of food for humans or most
humans cannot do. To understand how bark and other organisms because they lack the enzymes
wood can serve as food for these critters requires necessary to digest it. Starch, which many
knowledge of cell wall structure, bark and wood animals including humans can metabolize

Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service • West Lafayette, Indiana

vessels and tracheids are dead and hollow. regardless of its thickness. The Due to its phenolic nature (phenols are often used only nutritional value of these cells is in the as disinfectants). When mature. starch. which bonds cellulose of fibers produced in the phloem. There are considerable differences among species serves as a of trees. chained and consists of a mixture of several kinds The inner bark. Lignin is a roots. Cellulose has as dead cells of the outer bark and the inner bark much food value as starch. bark is the chief target for animals that feed on occurring within bark. hemicellulose. bark. The dead outer fibrils together. Most importantly. phenols. The inner Lignin Lignin. is the least but it’s more complex than cellulose because the palatable because the cell walls are high in lignin. to hold the cells together and imparts rigidity to tissues. the phloem cells with use this substance as food. and stored their gut that produce hemicellulase enzyme can starch. the water conducting xylem complex polymer built of phenylpropane units. lignin tends to make wood less lignified cell walls. among different kinds of trees and depends on the A second important constituent of plant cell relative activity of cork cambium and the amount walls is hemicellulose. Young twigs and branches are preferred the cell wall because they have a higher proportion of inner matrix formed to outer bark and lower concentrations of anti- by cellulose and digestion compounds such as lignin and phenols. It consists of pectins and pectic acids that upon breakdown yield galacturonic acid and the sugars arabinose and galactose. hemicellulose. in contrast. as well as being located around vessels. Relative position of bark and xylem tissues in a tree trunk 2 . but only animals that of living cork cambium and functional phloem maintain colonies of microorganisms in their gut tissues that transport sugars throughout trees. at the boundaries between annual rings. is similar Bark Anatomy to cellulose except the long chains of glucose are Bark consists of accumulations of crushed. because they produce amylase enzymes. Only animals with microorganisms in with nutrient laden cell sap. has living cells of sugars. Hemicellulose also is a polymer. and mineral elements. binding agent cellulose. organelles. is an The functional xylem or wood of trees extends indication of how flexible wood would be without from near the tips of twigs to near the tips of a stiffening ingredient like lignin. and the waxy substance suberin. linked in an alpha configuration. but all barks contain sugars. practically pure cellulose. molecule is highly branched instead of straight. their sugary contents are located here. The xylem also contains digestible even for animals adapted to feeding on parenchyma cells that constitute the vascular rays woody tissues. The soft Wood Structure nature of cotton. The that produce the enzyme cellulase are capable of thickness and appearance of bark varies widely digesting it. or just scattered The middle lamella located between cells among the vessels and tracheids. In the functional functions somewhat as a cementing material to hold adjacent cells together. All of these cell wall materials are potential sources of food if the proper enzymes are available to digest them into their basic sugar and organic acid components.

microorganisms that degrade woody debris in the Analysis of the watery sap coursing through outside environment by secreting digestive the cells of the phloem reveals that sucrose is the principal form in which photosynthate is translocated. mannitol. and often protected by defensive starch and water conducting cells containing only compounds. challenge since the vegetation they consume the sapwood is the most appealing and digestible is a far less concentrated food. intestines (cecum. the breakdown of foodstuffs is phloem cells produced by the vascular cambium accomplished through a combination of become a sink for sugars and amino acids. beginning in the mouth. located in exceptionally long intestine. parenchyma For carnivores and omnivores adapted to cells are alive and used for storage of starch. starch. more difficult part of the xylem for wood feeders with its stored to digest. fruits. It varies considerably of Food in Trees among species. arise. Freeman and Company/Worth Publishers stored in living parenchyma cells in the roots and in the sapwood of the branches and trunk of trees. fats. and even amino acids also occur. Renewal of tree growth in the spring is dependent on this stored food. making mechanical grinding and enzymatic processes them particularly attractive as a food source. and sugars) that can Hindgut fermenter with cecum be absorbed into the circulatory system.part of the xylem. which at the same time can also be a rich source of easily digestible food for consumers of the bark and wood. Strict herbivores have a big deter fungal decay and insect feeding. plant material must be broken down to gain The vascular cambium is the lateral meristem access to proteins and carbohydrates inside from which both new xylem and phloem cells living cells. Digestive Systems To use bark and wood as food. cellulose. but sorbitol. verbascose. The eating meat as well as fruits and nuts with their heartwood. the rigid cell walls of small amounts of anti-digestion compounds. and roots. Hence. but in all cases depends on Some of the sugar produced by photosynthesis microorganisms that inhabit special compartments is used for growth at its site of synthesis. fatty acids. or an enlarged colon.H. The succulent. 3 . Surplus quantities of these sugars are Copyright W. in contrast. raffinose. expanding new xylem and For animals. the sapwood. an trunk. an out- most is transported via the phloem to other sites pocketing of the terminal portion of the small to sustain growth or for storage in the branches. but of the stomach (rumen). organisms must possess specialized digestive systems and the necessary enzymes. has no living cells and concentrated food value. intestine where it joins the large intestine). The function of these adaptations is to break down huge macromolecules (proteins. the inner bark. To further degrade ingested food. In addition. and hemicellulose) into smaller molecules (amino acids. usually as starch. the digestion system of herbivores Movement and Storage is uniquely modified. the digestive system the starch is replaced with resins and phenols that is relatively simple. stachyose. The phloem. extends throughout trees from Protozoa and bacteria that function similarly to the small twigs in the crown to the fine roots.

camels. Cellulosic material is of the wood under water as a winter food supply digested by microorganism-aided fermentation beneath the ice. often 25 times the body woody diet. The first pass of food through the digestive tract does not provide enough opportunity for microorganisms to digest the coarse food particles. and amino acids Examples of Animals that from woody materials. but in winter it feeds on woody as horses. Digastric animals are called foregut fermenters. is important for small mammalian species with relatively high metabolic rates and sustained caloric needs. organic acids. vegetation almost exclusively. This practice. moose.H. they regurgitate and re-chew it. cellulases. Coprophagy is somewhat analogous Stomach of foregut fermenter to a ruminant animal chewing its cud. the first being the rumen which contains the symbiotic microorganisms. They actively cut protein is digested and absorbed in the single. There they basically conduct the same practice coprophagy usually consume their feces fermentation processes. Large jaw muscles power sharp length. rhinoceroses. and cattle. to insure adequate time for digestion and absorption. Freeman and Company/Worth Publishers chamber of the stomach. hemi. rabbits. sheep. about half of the beaver’s food is woody (digastric). and rabbits. In digastric animals like deer. nourishing both the host animal and the millions of microorganisms living Eat Bark and Wood in its digestive system. They are primarily bark-eaters. In these animals the Beavers have many adaptations for their intestine is very long. Beavers are a good example of a hindgut fermenter. Later when resting and watchful for predators. antelope. the stomach is divided into four chambers. In monogastric herbivores such vegetation. goats. Animals that of the gut. in the intestine. the difference being the point in the digestion process enzymes are brought “indoors” to the protection at which the food is rechewed. Several hindgut fermenters (rodents. The cellulases. In the spring complexly subdivided into various chambers and fall. and others) increase the digestion of their food by eating 25 to 60 percent of their feces. trees and shrubs in the summer. This cycle is repeated Trees cut by beavers for food and dam construction 4 . when resting. and other enzymes that they produce. known as coprophagy. release sugars. The stomach of herbivorous animals can be ingesting the bark of young twigs and sapwood a single saclike compartment (monogastric) or of branches and small tree trunks. often modified to have either a cecum or enlarged colon. storing sections chambered stomach. Digastric animals only partially chew their food as they quickly gather it. rodents. until the mechanical and chemical breakdown of the food is adequate for it to pass to the next Copyright W. Monogastric animals that have the ability to digest cellulosic materials are referred to as hindgut fermenters.

creating consternation the cecum.and hemicellulase-producing Rabbits have a simple stomach. porcupines have 20 enlarged cecum and colon inhabited by symbiotic teeth to reduce their food to dust-like consistency microorganisms allow digestion of their for efficient breakdown.incisors that slice through wood and flat molars and shrub owners. chew its cud. the reticulum. In addition. it or three times that amount when the feces is lies down in a secluded place to regurgitate and re-ingested. As food becomes scarce in late winter. the first chamber of its stomach. making and absorption take place. consisting almost solely of 30 to 45 lbs of twigs and shrubs each day. Their large cecum contains to girdling the base of seedlings and saplings. vegetation. foresters. resulting in a slow passage time other sources of food are scarce. nurseryman. extraction of nourishment from wood and bark. After a deer fills in one pass through their digestive system to two its rumen. the foliage and twigs of woody plants that they Cellulose digestion is increased from 14 percent chew just enough to swallow. allowing them to meet their number of animals that dominate woodlands and nutritional requirements in spite of the fast transit prairies. and Ruminants with chambered stomachs and Christmas tree growers. Rabbits practice foregut fermentation are represented by a large coprophagy. but in the winter. moose will strip bark from trees. Much of the damage is due grind the fibrous bark. Coprophagy increases protein digestibility from 50 percent in one pass through their digestive The herbaceous diet of deer frequently includes system to 75 to 80 percent upon re-ingestion. It should now be apparent that tree bark and wood are important sources of food for many Bark stripped from sapling by porcupine animals with feeding habits and digestive systems adapted to capitalize on their food value. thereby running diet. but an microorganisms. Like deer. the omasum. To improve the by randomly pruning branches as they feed. as bacteria and fungi that aid in digesting about 30 well as from deforming the growth of young trees percent of the dietary cellulose. especially poplars. During the winter months their food becomes even more woody. the ruminant digestive system of moose extracts sustenance from these woody tissues. rabbits may and more absorption of the fermented products of gnaw the bark of trees. produces acid to break down food pieces for easier absorption of nutrients in the intestines. 5 . re-swallowing the food for further microbial fermentation and eventual passage to In summer. housing cellulase. The large intestine also is herbivorous diet. To digest the high percentage of fiber in their beavers practice coprophagy. examples. The diet of moose includes leaves of trees and shrubs and both terrestrial and aquatic plants when available. Particularly in winter when extremely long. porcupines feed on ground the second portion of the stomach. where intensive digestion twigs from a great variety of species. for homeowners. The last compartment. they spend most After about 16 hours. Deer and moose are just a couple of time of food through their digestive system. food passes to the third of their time in trees eating the inner bark and chamber. themselves a pest in the opinion of most tree the abomasum. porcupines are equipped with a cecum food through their digestive system several times.

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