Study uncovers mystery of ancient vegetarian cave bear diet

A new study unravels the mystery of the extinct vegetarian cave bear diet.

Tyler MacDonald | Oct 07, 2019

One of the two bears species that roamed Europe during the Late Pleistocene period was the extinct and mostly vegetarian Ursus spelaeus cave bear. And now, a new study sheds light on the evolution of cave bear diets and the vegetarian species' unique morphology.

The study suggests that the the Deninger's bear (Ursus deningeri), which is the direct ancestor of the vegetarian cave bear, had unique morphology in is mandible, teeth, and cranium, which is likely due to its consumption of vegetables.

"There is an ongoing discussion on the extent to which the classic cave bear was a vegetarian," said Mikel Arlegi, doctoral candidate at the Universities of the Basque Country and Bordeaux and co-author of the study. "And, this is especially why the new information on the diet of its direct ancestor is so important, because it teaches us that a differentiation between the diet of cave bears and brown bears was already established by 500 thousand years ago and likely earlier."

"The analyses showed that Deninger's bear had very similarly shaped mandibles and skull to the classic cave bear", said Anneke van Heteren, lead-author of the study and Head of the Mammalogy section at the Bavarian State Collection of Zoology. The findings imply that they were adapted to identical food types and were mostly vegetarian.

The team also found shape variations between theDeninger's bears that lived onthe Iberian Peninsula and those that lived in the rest of Europe, and have come up with numerous hypotheses to explain them.

"However, more fossils are necessary to test these three hypotheses," said Asier Gmez-Olivencia, an Ikerbasque Researcher at the University of the Basque Country.

The findings were published in Historical Biology.