Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Cave Bears Not So Cuddly

The fearsome-looking cave bear (Ursus spelaeus) was long believed by paleontologists to be largely or wholly vegetarian. Some 30% larger than today's brown bear, the cave bear had a wide distribution across Europe and neighboring regions until its extinction some 20,000 years ago. From caves in Romania and Turkey, however, we now have fossils indicating meat-eating and, plausibly, even cannibalistic behavior. High levels of the Nitrogen-15 in the Romanian fossils indicated the animals there made meat of some kind a significant part of their omnivorous diet. Fossils from Turkey show that large bears killed cubs, just as modern brown bears do, to establish their own reproductive line. Did they eat the cubs, too? This grisly behavior also occurs in modern bears. This case is a good reminder that we have much to learn about even well-established fossil species.

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