Climate change killed ancient cave bear

26 November 2008

Climate change and habitat loss led to the extinction of an ancient European cave bear, scientists at the Natural History Museum report today.

Illustration of the extinct European cave bear

Illustration of the extinct European cave bear © N Frotzler, University of Vienna

 

The cave bear, Ursus spelaeus, died out almost 30,000 years ago. This was during the last ice age when there was a period of major climatic change and global cooling.

Vegetarian

Unlike its modern fish-eating relatives, the cave bear was vegetarian. It could grow to an impressive 1,000kg in weight, which meant an abundant source of high-quality food must have been available.

After this period of global cooling, the quantity and quality of the bear’s vital food source declined, leaving the bear to starve as it ran out of food.

‘The disappearance of the cave bear around 27,500 years ago was probably due to the significant decline in quantity and quality of plant food, which in turn was the result of marked climatic cooling,’ says Museum fossil expert Professor Anthony Stuart who led the study.

Some experts had suggested that these extinctions could have been caused by over hunting by Neanderthals and modern humans but there is little evidence to support this, says Stuart.

Analysing fossils, collagen and teeth

Stuart worked with Dr Martina Pacher from the University of Vienna to analyse cave bear fossil remains from sites across Europe. From their results, they could accurately establish the timing of the bear’s 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 ice age animals

Several large charismatic species disappeared at different times within the late glacial period, such as the cave lion and woolly rhinoceros. 

Other large mammals, or megafauna, such as woolly mammoth, Mammuthus primigenius, giant deer, Megaloceros giganteus, and cave lion, Panthera spelaea, disappeared much later, towards the end of the last ice age. 

Professor Stuart concludes, ‘Climate cooling and subsequent decreased vegetation were probably responsible for the disappearance of the cave bears from the Alpine region.'

'However, we will continue to investigate the possibility that the species may have survived significantly later elsewhere, for example in southern or eastern Europe.’

The paper is published in the latest issue of the journal Boreas.