Cave Bear Skeleton

Cave Bear Skeleton

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A complete cave bear skeleton, Pleistocene era

A large cave bear skeleton (Ursus Spelaeus) from the Carpathian Mountains (Romania) dating back to the Upper Pleistocene period (126,000 to 11,700 years ago) on a metal stand.

The cave bear (Ursus Spelaeus) was a species of bear which lived in Europe during the Pleistocene era and became extinct at the beginning of the Last Glacial Maximum which occurred about 27,500 years ago. Both the name "cave bear" and the scientific name "spelaeus" derive from the fact that the fossils of this species were mostly found in caves, indicating that this species spent more time in caves than the Brown Bear (which only uses caves for hibernation). Cave bears were comparable in size to the largest bears in existence today. A large male could weigh 6-800kg. Interestingly cave bears were almost exclusively vegetarian and this is reflected in their dentition. They died out around 24,000 years ago so it is unlikely man had much of an impact on them as the human population in Europe at that time was very small.

Cave bear skeletons were first described in 1774 by Johann Friederich Esper in his book "Newly Discovered Zoolites of Unknown Four Footed Animals" and were thought to have been skeletons of dragons, unicorns, apes, canids or felids.

Condition: As with nearly all of these examples, parts of the bear have been significantly reconstructed including he hip and the shoulders bladesas well as sections of the front legs. Nevertheless it is roughly 90/95% complete.

5 Things You Never Knew About Prehistoric Cave Bears

Apart from in Jean Auel’s famous children’s novel, ‘Clan of the Cave Bear’, cave bears are a largely overlooked prehistoric beast. But these gentle giants are in fact one of the most fascinating animals of the Pleistocene era. This week we have a complete prehistoric cave bear skeleton in our auction. Take a few minutes and discover more about these awesome animals and if you're as enthralled with them as we are, you can place your bids on the skeleton until the 22nd of October (2017).

Gentle Giants
The cave bear, or ‘ursus spelaeus’, was one of the giants of the Pleistocene era. A distant ancestor of the modern brown bear, males could weigh up to 500kg. The females, however, were significantly smaller, weighing closer to 200kg, which caused them to initially be misidentified as a different species. Despite their huge size, these gentle giants are thought to have mainly foraged for food, and not attacked other creatures except as a result of desperation.

Killed in Worship
These giant animals, or ‘megafauna’, were first identified in the 17th century. Since then, specimens have been found across Europe in France, Italy and Switzerland. An apparent deliberate arrangement of skulls was discovered at a cave site in Drachenloch, Switzerland, which suggested an early form of animal worship amongst the neanderthals and homo sapiens. This practice would eventually be responsible for the animal’s demise, just 50,000 years ago.

Cave Dwellers
(Okay. you may have guessed this one). Like modern brown bears, it is believed the cave bear used these natural shelters for hibernation, a factor which eventually lead to their death. The encroachment of humans also seeking shelter led to the shrinking of the cave bear’s habitat and eventual extinction - an all too familiar story and one we should take note of with current environmental change and human habitation of the world’s remaining wildernesses.

They Were Surprisingly Vulnerable
Like its modern descendant, the brown bear, it is believed, despite its massive size, the cave bear was essentially a forager and lived mainly on a diet of fruit and occasionally fish. It is possible, as resources grew scarce, that they also ate one another. They would either scavenge the remains of cave bears that had not stored up enough fat to make it through winter hibernation, or even killed for survival, in seeking scarce shelter and food as domains diminished. As a hibernating species, the cave bears were also vulnerable to cave lions and cave hyenas with which they shared the environment.

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Our first attempt in the lab was actually a complete failure. We extracted DNA from the petrous bone and produced around a million DNA sequences. Only 74 out of the million provided a match to the polar bear genome, which we use as a reference to identify and assemble the short sequences of cave bear DNA.

Undeterred, we tried again, and this time we hit the jackpot. Tens of thousands of sequences, around 3.6% of the data, showed matches to the polar bear. In total, we produced around 2.1 billion base pairs – individual pieces of genetic code – of the genome of this ancient cave bear.

Palaeontological and ancient DNA research has found distinct groups of cave bears, some even regarded as distinct species. Much of this genetic evidence comes from maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA, which represents only a tiny part of an animal’s total DNA.

We constructed an new evolutionary family tree of cave bears from their entire nuclear genomes and compared it to the same tree generated from mitochondrial DNA. To our surprise, the two trees were almost completely different. In a single analysis we had essentially rewritten our understanding of cave bear evolution. It turned out the evolutionary relationships between cave bears based on the maternal line alone are very different than when looking at their entire DNA.

Cave bear skulls. Gennady Baryshnikov , Author provided

Our results showed the three main lineages of cave bear started to diverge around one million years ago, at the same time as their nearest relatives, polar bears and brown bears, diverged from each other. Interestingly, this was a time when glacial cycles – “ice ages” – became longer and more intense, which we think may have been a factor driving the evolution of these bears.

Although only based on a single sample, our study represents a big technological achievement. It suggests petrous bones offer exciting potential to further push back the time limits of palaeogenome recovery across all environments and ecosystems.

The petrous bone is present in all mammals, so it’s of particular importance for mammalian biodiversity. For non-mammalian remains, we’ve yet to find the best element for palaeogenomic analysis – but based on our results, we know we should be looking for the densest parts of the skeleton.

The hot and humid tropical environments, which present the most challenging conditions for DNA preservation, are generally considered biodiversity hotspots – where the majority of the world’s biodiversity is found. These regions may represent the next frontier in palaeogenome research, to explore that unknown past genetic biodiversity hidden in bones.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


Cave bear skeletons were first described in 1774 by Johann Friederich Esper in his book Newly Discovered Zoolites of Unknown Four Footed Animals. Originally thought to belong to dragons, unicorns, apes, canids or felids, Esper postulated that they actually belonged to polar bears. Twenty years later, Johann Christian Rosenmüller, an anatomist at the Leipzig University, gave the species its binomial name. The bones were so numerous that most researchers held little respect for them. During World War I, large amounts of cave bear bones were used as a source of phosphates, leaving behind little more than skulls and leg bones.

Many caves in Central Europe have skeletons of cave bears inside, for example the Heinrichshöhle in Hemer or the Dechenhöhle in Iserlohn, Germany. In Romania, there is a cave called Bears' Cave where 140 cave bear skeletons were discovered in 1983.spelaeus]]

Non-permafrost genomes

Finding bones. Johanna Paijmans , Author provided

After death, the environment in which an animal dies in strongly affects the speed at which its tissues degrade. We see this every day in our kitchens – food left out on a hot day quickly spoils, but the same food stored in the freezer can last for months. DNA is no different, it survives a long time in the near perfect conditions of permafrost. But the warmer the storage conditions, like in non-permafrost environments, the faster DNA will degrade to a state where it’s no longer recognisable as the original product.

Even if the DNA has survived all that time, a major challenge for palaeogenome recovery is ancient samples are also usually highly contaminated with microbial DNA from the external environment – like the bacteria that fed on the decaying corpse or live in the surrounding soil. These typically outnumber the sample DNA, which increases the cost of genome sequencing by up to a factor of 100. This make most palaeogenome sequencing of ancient samples simply too expensive to undertake.

But a recent discovery in the field of ancient DNA has changed things. A particular bone in the mammalian skeleton – the petrous bone, part of the skull which contains the inner ear – seems to be more resistant to contamination from the external environment, potentially due to its extremely high density. In our previous studies we used petrous bones to sequence the genomes of much younger extinct cave bears. Some of these have contained as much a 70% cave bear DNA.

We wondered if this was the way to recover even older palaeogenomes. So we selected a cave bear petrous bone dating to 360,000 years ago, within the geological period known as the Middle Pleistocene, and took it to the lab.

Former caves are home to lots of cave bear bones. Axel Barlow. , Author provided


  1. Bernd Brunner (2005), Bears: A Brief History, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007, (accessed 29/12/2018), pp. 42-44. ↩
  3. Geoffrey Ashe (1977), The Ancient Wisdom: A Quest for the Source of Mystic Knowledge, London: Macmillan, p. 147. ↩
  4. Quoted in Bernd Brunner, Op. cit., p. 43. ↩
  5. Ina Wunn (2001), ‘Cave Bear Worship in the Palaeolithic’, in Cadernos (Vol. 26, pp. 457-463). ↩
  6. William B. Gibbon (1964), ‘Asiatic Parallels in North American Star Lore: Ursa Major’, in Journal of American Folklore (Vol. 77, No. 305, pp. 236–250). ↩

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This was first published on the now-retired website, a companion site for the book North: The Rise & Fall of the Polar Cosmos by Gyrus &ndash an epic, animism-infused history of cosmology. Check out more information, or buy from Strange Attractor Press.

Writer based in Wiltshire. Obsessions include prehistoric consciousness, depth psychology, cosmology, animism, and Alan Partridge. He's the author of North (2014), and the publisher behind the acclaimed underground journals Dreamflesh (2006) and Towards 2012 (a long time ago). More

Perfectly Preserved - Even The Nose!

Preliminary analysis of the preserved "ice mummy" places the Siberian cave bear to at least the age of the Karginsky interglacial - a warm interval period in the Siberian region between 39,000 to 22,000 years ago.

"It is necessary to carry out radiocarbon analysis to determine the precise age of the bear," explained Maxim Cheprasov, from Yakutsk's Mammoth Museum laboratory.

In a news release from the NEFU - Yakutsk, Lena Grigorieva, lead researcher from the International Centre for Collective Use of Molecular Paleontology at the NEFU's Institute of Applied Ecology of the North, said of the discovery: "Today this is the first and only find of its kind - a whole bear carcass with soft tissues." She further described the remains as being completely preserved, all internal organs in place - even the bear's nose.

According to the federal university, the find is of great importance, especially since previous cave bear discoveries were only limited to bones and skulls. Also, other Russian and foreign researchers will be invited by the NEFU to also collaborate on the study.

Grigorieva also added that they are planning to conduct a study on the cave bear in a similar scale as the Maly Lyakhovsky mammoth - the partial discovery of the carcass of a wooly mammoth back in 2012 which lead to breakthroughs in understanding relating anatomical, morphological, and biological history information from the Pleistocene period. The large-scale study was also led by scientists from the Institute of Applied Ecology of the North, North-Eastern Federal University, Yakutsk, in Russia.

Ice Age Cave Bear With Hole in Its Skull May Have Been Stabbed by Ancient Humans

Cave bears were hulking beasts you wouldn’t want to run into in the dark (even if they were mostly vegetarians ). But it seems a human got the better of one of these now-extinct ursids, according to an assessment made by Russian paleontologists last month.

The team revealed cave bear remains found in the Imanay Cave in the Southern Ural mountains. The cave is chock full of thousands of bone fragments, including remains of red foxes, mammoths, cave lions, marmots, woolly rhinos, and steppe bison. Among the bones was the skull of a small cave bear, Ursus rossicus. Based on a narrow, oblong hole found in the animal’s skull, the team determined the ancient bear was likely killed by a human, as discussed in a paper describing the find recently published in Vestnik Archeologii, Anthropologii I Ethnographii.

“The hole in the skull could be either natural or artificial,” said Dmitry Gimranov, senior researcher at the Ural Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Ural Federal University, in a university press release . “In the first case, for example, a stone could fall on the bear’s head, or water dripped onto the skull during thousands of years. But this is highly unlikely. Most likely the animal was killed by ancient people.”

Gimranov and his colleagues dated the bear skull to about 35,000 years old, and, based on growth layers in the animal’s teeth, deduced that it was about 10 years old when it died. The skull was found near evidence of Pleistocene human habitation and comes after three years of excavations in the cave, which sits in Bashkiria National Park. Paleontologists have known that Pleistocene humans relied on large mammals for food, including woolly mammoths, and some cave bear bones have shown evidence of meat removal. But this is the first direct evidence of a bear being hunted, according to the team.

It’s not the first time an Ice Age cold case has turned up. In 2019, a saber-toothed cat cranium with a hole in skullcap led researchers to believe the big cats may have fought amongst their own species. Though not a murder mystery, last summer a cave bear came out of the Siberian permafrost so well preserved that its toothy grin could be seen on a head still covered in muscle tissue and fur.

Description [ edit | edit source ]

The cave bear had a very broad, domed skull with a steep forehead. Its stout body had long thighs, massive shins and in-turning feet, making it similar in skeletal structure to the brown bear.[12] Cave bears were comparable in size to the largest modern-day bears. The average weight for males was 400 to 500 kilograms (880 to 1,100 lb), while females weighed 225 to 250 kg (495 to 550 lb).[13] Of cave bear skeletons in museums, 90% are male due to a misconception that the female skeletons were merely "dwarfs". Cave bears grew larger during glaciations and smaller during interglacials, probably to adjust heat loss rate.[14] Cave bears of the last Ice Age lacked the usual two or three premolars present in other bears to compensate, the last molar is very elongated, with supplementary cusps.[15] The humerus of the cave bear was similar in size to that of the polar bear, as were the femora of females. The femora of male cave bears, however, bore more similarities in size to those of kodiak bears.

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