Study reveals what cave bears ate

Study reveals what cave bears ate

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The cave bear (Ursus spelaeus) is a species of ursid that occupied much of Europe since the beginning of the Upper Pleistocene, about 100,000 years ago. Its disappearance, about 25,000 years ago, has been the subject of debate by the scientific community for decades.

A study conducted on fossils found in the Cova del Toll site (Moià, Barcelona) –one of the sites with the largest number of recovered remains of this species– has revealed a unique feature of the feeding behavior of this animal: despite having a diet dominated by vegetables when the hibernation period approached it was capable of adopting very carnivorous eating habits. The study has been published in the journal Scientific Reports.

These conclusions have been obtained from the application of two different methods on the remains of fossil ursids: the analysis of stable isotopes and dental micro-wear. These analyzes can provide direct and individualized information on the investigated animals and their combination offers the possibility of performing very precise reconstitutions on different moments in the life of the animals studied.

On the one hand, the isotopic values ​​of certain chemical elements (carbon and nitrogen) located in collagen (main component of the organic fraction of bone) inform about the diet that the animal had for most of its life. On the other hand, with the study of the marks found in the tooth enamel, it is possible to know the diet he had in the last weeks before dying.

The study, directed by the Institut Català de Paleoecologia Humana i Evolució Social (IPHES) and which has had international participation, highlights the importance of combining techniques that cover different temporal resolutions to reconstitute the ecology of an extinct animal species.

These techniques are essential to learn about eating habits and their potential seasonal changes, as in the case of the cave bear menu throughout the year, one of the paleontological phenomena with the greatest interest.

Bibliographic reference

Ramírez-Pedraza, I. et al. (2019). "Microwear and isotopic analyzes on cave bear remains from Toll Cave reveal both short-term and long-term dietary habits" Scientific Reports 9, 5716.

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