what ever happened to the European cave bear?

what ever happened to the European cave bear?

A study published earlier this year explored a new theory on why the European cave bear, Ursus spelaeus, was driven to extinction by climate change events of yester world. Controversy has recently arisen regarding the diet of the animal, and how that may have played a part in its end.

What was the European cave bear? This mighty bear was once present throughout the continents of Europe and Asia, yet met its demise approximately 24,000 years ago. This was a formidable creature, even heavier than even the largest grizzlies that are alive today at 1,500lbs. Their physical structure was significantly more robust than the bears of today, having a much wider head, and stronger forelimbs and shoulders.

These bears once lived alongside human beings, sharing the land with us for tens of thousands of years. Although we can assume humans and this species existed in competition with one another, the relationship between the two remains a mystery. Now, scientists think they may have come significantly closer to what exactly led to the extinction of this magnificent animal.

The Mysterious Life of European Cave Bears

The European cave bear’s existence has been shrouded in mystery since researchers have come to know its name. Theories of its diet have ranged from exclusive herbivory to all-out carnivory. (A meat-only diet, otherwise known as “obligate carnivory,” is not characteristic of any bear species that exist today.) Why all the talk of its diet?

A bear’s diet is of critical importance when it comes to their success in hibernation. Against all the odds, this massive creature hides away during winter and “hibernates” (bears do not truly hibernate, but undergo torpor) after packing on a ton of fat stores throughout the fall. The food they eat is critical to building the proper fat stores that will get them through the harshness of their freezing, months-long naptime.

University at Buffalo | The shape of the European cave bears skull (left) imposed uneven stress throughout this body part when chewing, especially when compared to bears of today (right). This severely impacted its dietary flexibility.

The European Cave Bear Diet and Other Factors That Led to Extinction

Researchers discovered that European cave bears were mainly herbivorous, at least between 100,000 to 20,000 years ago. The trouble with that is that the bears were so stubborn that they seemingly refused to change their diets (a really poor time to choose to be a food snob).

If the bears refused to partake of the meats, then they had little chance of building up enough fat to get through the extreme cooling of the environment.

Before this study, have been two primary hypotheses behind what occurred to force Ursus spelaeus into extinction:

  • They were driven to extinction by human activity in the form of competition for resources or by being hunted to dangerously low numbers.
  • The cooling of the climate in the late Pleistocene negatively impacted the vegetation in their habitats, causing their population numbers to dwindle.

These may not necessarily have been mutually exclusive in their role in the ending of this fantastic animal. The researchers also learned that their disappearance may not have been attributed only to their diet and the environment, but their anatomy as well.

The thick, elongated shape of the skull was detrimental to the bear’s dietary flexibility, ultimately contributing to the species’ end, despite its positive attributes.


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