Ursus spelaeus: The Bear Necessities

Article by: J. D. Dixon
Edited by: Harry T. Jones

Ursus arctos marsicanus, the modern Apennine brown bear. It is thought the larger and extinct Ursus spelaeus would have had a similar appearance. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Apennine-brown-bear-Ursus-arctos-marsicanus-Abruzzo-Lazio-and-Molise-NP-photo-by-S_fig4_261072616.

Name: Ursus spelaeus
Name Meaning: Cave Bear
Age: Pleistocene
Diet: Omnivore
Weight: 250-500 kg
Location: Europe

Ursus spelaeus is an extinct species of Pleistocene bear that diverged from other bear lineages ~ 1.2 million years ago. The species would have looked similar to Ursus arctos, the modern brown bear, and it has earned the common name ‘cave bear’ due to the substantial amount of remains found almost exclusively within caves. Cave bears are thought to have been primarily distributed throughout western and central Europe. However, the fossil record is incomplete, and so this may not show the full extent of cave bear coverage. Males of the species are estimated to have weighed between 400-500 kg, with females ranging between 225-250 kg. While all members of the family Ursidae (the family to which bears belong) are carnivorans, many have varied dietary preferences. Ursus spelaeus may have partaken in some instances of cannibalism and scavenging, but their diet undoubtedly also included significant amounts of vegetative matter.

Chauvet-Pont d’Arc, a French cave discovered in 1995, has long been studied as a potential site for the origin of art. However, humans were not the only inhabitants, as hibernation nests and claw marks suggest that cave bears also lived here for significant periods of time. The walls of the cave feature impressive paintings, including depictions of Ursus spelaeus. Other animal bones were found scattered throughout the cave system, more than 90% of which originate from Ursus spelaeus. Around 3,700 bones belonging to cave bears have been recovered from Chauvet. Among these, an Ursus spelaeus skull was found on a limestone rock in the ‘Salle du Crâne’ (skull chamber) area. The skull was covered in a charcoal layer, and was found among other specimens as part of a more complex formation thought to have been made by early hominids, potentially showing cultural/religious significance.

Cave bear remains retrieved from the Hohle Fels Cave of Southwestern Germany exhibit signs of human modification. An Ursus spelaeus vertebra was recovered with a piece of flint embedded inside. The way in which the flint was rooted suggests that this bear was attacked by spear-wielding humans while it was lying down, so this kill possibly occurred while the bear was hibernating. Other fossils recovered from this site exhibit manmade cut marks, indicative of skinning and defleshing, as well as impact marks that suggest marrow extraction. Ash layers at the site even contained cave bear bones, which implies that they were burned as a fuel source. Finally, some bones have a polish which distinctly suggests they were modified into tools. All of these remains were found in stratigraphic positions that suggest they were acquired by early humans on different occasions over 5,000 years, indicating that they were an important resource. Despite this, these finds all originate from one cave system, and the majority of Ursus spelaeus fossils from the wider area exhibit no modification. While cave bears were hunted by humans, this was less common, and bears were likely only hunted for requirements such as territory acquisition, or the production of clothing and tools. It has been suggested that cave bear hunting only occurred during the transition from winter to spring, and that the cave bears did not provide a year-round food source, but a seasonal one.

Ursus spelaeus populations experienced a drastic decline throughout the Middle and Late Pleistocene, until around 12 thousand years ago (Ka) when this species became extinct. The regional disappearance of cave bears across Europe has been attributed to climatic cooling, as decreasing environmental temperatures would have caused lower vegetation productivity. Since vegetation constituted a main dietary element for cave bears, if this food source had drastically reduced, then the populations would have suffered immensely. Further research has also attributed climatic fluctuations to the extinction of European megafauna, with human interaction and influence only playing a minor role in an otherwise ongoing process. However, cave bears are known to have been able to survive differential climatic conditions, as they have been found in Siberia, over 1500 km from their native range within the Arctic Circle. A decline in cave bear populations may have actually begun at ~ 40 Ka, which coincides with the dispersal of anatomically modern humans throughout Europe.

Hominids may have influenced cave bear populations in a variety of ways, which in turn may have led to the demise of the bears. Direct hunting of cave bears has been hypothesised as a cause of the eventual extinction of Ursus spelaeus. However, there are only a few, rare cases when hominid predation of hibernating bears is thought to have been a predominant resource, such as at Hohle Fels, Grotta del Rio Secco and Grotta di Fumane. If this was not a common occurrence, it could not have been the overall cause of this extinction. It is instead thought that competition for environmental resources between humans and cave bears is the primary cause of this extinction. Cave bears are thought to have exhibited strong dependence on their birth caves. As hominids outcompeted bears for cave sites, this would have caused a decline in bear numbers because these surviving bears were forced to dwell in less suitable caves. It has been acknowledged that even a low human population density at this time would have caused a slow and steady decline in cave bears via displacement. It is thought that human residence times within caves, and human group sizes during the Pleistocene, both increased, so would have been able to cause exponential collapse of European Ursus spelaeus populations.

Image References
[1] Ursus arctos marsicanus, the modern Apennine brown bear. It is thought the larger and extinct Ursus spelaeus would have had a similar appearance. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Apennine-brown-bear-Ursus-arctos-marsicanus-Abruzzo-Lazio-and-Molise-NP-photo-by-S_fig4_261072616.
[2] Cave bear skull in Skull Chamber of Chauvet Cave. Image copyrighted to Jean-Michel Geneste and taken from Delannoy, et al. (2013). Available at: https://www.cambridge.org/core/services/aop-cambridge-core/content/view/0B6279E3232FAAE581643F79A96A7854/S0003598X00048596a.pdf/div-class-title-the-social-construction-of-caves-and-rockshelters-chauvet-cave-france-and-nawarla-gabarnmang-australia-div.pdf.

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