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A friend of mine took the following picture of the tree with claw marks on it, in the pacific northwest Washington while on a hike. Both cougars and black bears are known to be in the area. Is this a picture of black bear or cougar claw marks? Me being from the Midwest I don't have a point of reference so I have no idea, but it sure seems fresh.

enter image description here

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    I don't think a cougar would be after peeling the bark; not very nutritious for obligate carnivores....
    – bob1
    Jul 13, 2022 at 21:28
  • Do you have any more information or references? I.e. at what height are the marks, how long are the scratches and how far apart the individual claws?
    – Max
    Jul 15, 2022 at 8:32

4 Answers 4

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The photographer / hiker here.
WA Fish and Wildlife (retired friend) indicated: bear, pulling sheets of bark aside to lick the sap. Seemingly common for this time of year in the PNW (this is Cascades region). That's a deciduous tree, smaller things under its canopy are the conifers.

The three-touching-parallel grooves had made me wonder about cougar claws compressing vs. bear claws, which don't do that as much.

Thanks all for the replies! I'd much rather share immediate trailspace with bear than cougar, rightly or wrongly on my part.

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    Welcome to the site. I was thinking the grooves are teeth marks, rather than claws
    – bob1
    Jul 18, 2022 at 22:39
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A black bear stripped the bark to eat it.

Timber Damage by Black Bears

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    So are you suggesting they are tooth scrapes, not claws? Bears use their claws to strip bark from a tree, then feed on the sapwood (newly formed outer wood) by scraping it from the heartwood (older central wood) with their teeth. Scattered remnants of bark strewn at the base of a tree and vertical tooth marks indicate bear activity. So it is the sapwood they eat, not the bark. Jul 15, 2022 at 13:38
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    This would be a good answer if you fleshed it out with the detail. It's a link-only answer. Jul 15, 2022 at 13:53
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I first went to porcupines, as they tend to scrape and eat bark, but I've never seen damage with those deep groves; they tend to leave a finer, smaller pattern behind. Next I thought elk, but they only eat photosynthetic bark found in aspen, and that looks like a conifer. So I think that leaves black bear, using their teeth (not claws for reasons described in other answers) to eat the phloem (sap-transport tissue under the bark). It's hard to find good photographic sources, but I used these pages:

USDA black bear damage USFS animal damage to trees Save the redwoods bear damage Possible suspects from Cool Green Science blog

Black bear is my final answer!

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  • Nitpick: that tree looks like an alder to me, which is not a conifer (although the alder's catkins do kind of look like pine cones). It's surrounded by red cedar (coniferous) branches, but you can see the simple, serrated alder leaves at top right.
    – Juhasz
    Jul 18, 2022 at 17:40
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Ok, so let me preface this by saying I have absolutely no idea about the subject and I'm neither from the pacific northwest nor the US. Where I'm from, there are a handful of secluded wolves on the other side of the country and that's all we got when it comes to large animals that could leave marks like that. I did find the color of the tree and the patterns interesting so I gave it a try.

So, first of all I believe it's neither bear nor cougar. Lets have a closer look at the claw marks (if they actually are claw marks, but I do think so) first. There are two types of marks, the long scratches and the smaller shorter ones which kind of look like deer footprints or apostrophes ("). The scratches have two very clear lines with a third sometimes visible on the "outside". The scratches appear in sets of two or three in parallel, starting roughly at the same height. Below each of these sets, a set of the smaller "apostrophe" marks can be seen.

If you look at the symmetry of the "left" and "right" marks, I believe we are looking for an animal with four claws or toes. They also don't appear to be territorial marks or from claw sharpening/trimming (think cat on a couch) which both would leave more random, overlapping marks in one place. The combination of the long/short marks makes me think this is from an animal climbing a tree.

So lets rule out bears. First of all they have 5 claws and they climb by "hugging" the tree and wrapping around the tree with their arms. This is a mark from a black bear. enter image description here

Apparently the also tend to bite and scratch in a single spot when marking territory as seen here.

Cougars aren't as obvious to rule out, but if you look at pictures from here, they seem quite different. Their 4 claws all seem to leave a mark.

So what else could it be? As said above, most likely a 4 clawed animal that can climb trees. As you mentioned bears and cougars, I went straight to other large animals. But after looking at the picture for a while, the marks seem to be a lot smaller. More like the size of a racoon or so. Perspective can be deceiving, but the diameter of the tree seems more like 25-30cm (10-12"). Again, you can (most likely) rule out rodents, they also have 5 toes/fingers/claws.

Then I came across this picture: enter image description here

Apparently felines have their four toes more or less in one line whereas canines have the two middle ones quite far forward compared to the outer ones. So a canine would be in line with the very distinct two middle claw marks in the picture.

So a canine that climbs trees? Well there seems to be two species that can do that: The Japanese raccoon dog and the grey fox. We can rule out the former for obvious reasons. The grey fox however is native to north america and vulpines have an even more pronounced central toes than other canine.

Here is an example of their tracks: enter image description here

So this would be my best guess. Of course could be also anything else ;D

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  • You have ruled out cougars, but at least one of the images in your link show a long parallel pair of grooves, not unlike those in the question. Jul 15, 2022 at 13:02
  • True, but the gap between doesn't match. In OPs image the marks almost touch whereas in the image there is a significant gap between. And the smaller marks defenitely don't match the cougar marks.
    – Max
    Jul 15, 2022 at 13:37
  • Not my DV but I think the other link-only answer is closer. Jul 15, 2022 at 13:38
  • Have you looked at an image of a bears jaw?
    – Max
    Jul 15, 2022 at 13:46
  • I read what another answer's link says: bears scrape off the exposed sapwood from the trunk with their teeth, leaving vertical tooth marks, and discard the bark. See how close together the scrapes are, and they don't diverge at all. Jul 15, 2022 at 13:53

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