Cave bear necessities ran out
27 November 2008
Our ancestors may be spared blame for driving the cave bear to extinction in Europe.
Replica European cave bear skull. Scientists at the Natural History Museum say the bear became extinct due to global cooling and habitat loss about 30,000 years ago. © Anthony Stuart
Scientists are now challenging the previous assumption that over-hunting by Neanderthals and modern humans probably killed off cave bears around 15,000 years ago.
New evidence in the journal Boreas indicates the cave bear, Ursus spelaeus, which weighed up to 1000kg, disappeared from Europe around 27,500 years ago.
The paper states the bear probably died out in the Alps around the start of an event known as the Greenland Stadial 3 when temperatures in Europe dropped significantly.
'Vast numbers of [cave bears'] remains have been recovered from many cave sites, almost certainly representing animals that died during winter hibernation,' the paper says.
Veggie diet to blame
The cold snap meant food supplies were scarce. Unlike its modern fish-eating relatives, the cave bear was vegetarian. It needed abundant high-quality food that would have struggled to survive fierce winters.
Illustration of the extinct European cave bear. © Frotzler, University of Vienna.
Fossil expert, Professor Anthony Stuart, a NERC post-doctoral researcher at the Natural History Museum, said, 'Climate cooling and subsequent decreased vegetation were probably responsible for the disappearance of the cave bears from the Alpine region.'
Stuart added that the species may have survived significantly later elsewhere, for example in southern or eastern Europe.
Stuart worked with Dr Martina Pacher from the University of Vienna to analyse cave bear fossil remains from sites across Europe. Accurate dating techniques allowed them to work out the timing of the bears' extinction.
Chemical analysis of cave bear bone collagen and a study of their teeth revealed they were largely vegetarian, in contrast to the omnivorous diet of the modern brown bear.
Another mammal that went extinct in Europe at the same time was the spotted hyena, Crocuta crocuta.
Other large mammals such as woolly mammoth, giant deer, and cave lions disappeared much later, towards the end of the last ice age.
Interesting? Spread the word using the 'share' menu on the top right.