Skull of a cave bear


(Ursus spelaeus)

Carpathian Mountains, Romania

Pleistocene Epoch (100,000 - 24,000 Years)

The cave bear (Ursus spelaeus) is a prehistoric species of bear which lived in Europe and Asia during the Pleistocene epoch, around 100,000 to 24,000 years ago.  They had very broad, domed skulls with a steeped forhead and a similar skeletal structure to the modern day brown bear.  They were compariable in size (or larger than) the largest modern day bears, measuring up to 2 meters in length and weighing up to 1000kg.  Despite their enourmous size, they are thought to have been mostly herbiverous.

Cave bears are thought to have spent more time in caves than the modern day brown bear, which uses caves only for hibernation.  Therefore it's not surprising that many caves in Central Europe contain cave bear fossils.  In fact, their bones are so numerous that during World War I, with a scarcity of phosphate dung, the earth from caves where cave bear bones are found was used as a source of phosphates.  Some caves are known to contain thousands of bones which likely accumilated over a period of 100,000 years or more.

Gailenreuth cave, Germany

The latest research suggests cave bears went extinct around 24,000 years ago.  It is highly unlikely that hunting by human beings caused its extinction as human populations at the time were to small to pose a significant threat.  What's more, in contrast to the brown bear, cave bears are seldom represented in cave paintings, suggesting human hunters may have avoided cave bears.  It is likely that a complex set of factors, rather than a single factor, led to their extinction.

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