How carnivorous were cave bears?

6 minute read

Charles Q. Choi reports on a new paper by Michael Richards and colleagues:

For the past 30 years, studies of their skulls, jaws and teeth suggested cave bears might have been largely herbivorous. In addition, the bones of central and western European cave bears matched those of vegetarians in having low levels of nitrogen-15, whose atomic nucleus has one more neutron than common nitrogen-14 does. Animals accumulate nitrogen-15 in their bodies, and animals that eat animals -- that is, carnivores -- build up more nitrogen-15 than herbivores do.
Still, black bears and brown bears are omnivores. This suggested that although some cave bears were largely vegetarian, others might have been more carnivorous.
New data from the Pestera cu Oase ("Cave with Bones") in the southwestern tip of the Carpathian mountains in Romania now hints most of its cave bears were significantly carnivorous, due to their high nitrogen-15 levels.

It's PNAS, so we won't see the paper for a while. I'll comment more fully here when it is available. Nitrogen-15 is the primary evidence for Neandertal carnivory also, although as I've noted (here and here), those interpretations face some complications.

A large source of nitrogen-15 is fish, which seems a likely source for the cave bears.

UPDATE (2008/01/08): I got the paper. The results show that the Oase cave bears have nitrogen-15 values ranging from a low overlapping with red deer up to a high midway through the wolves -- where higher means more carnivorous. There was one outlier with a very low nitrogen-15 ratio. The impressive thing is the range of values, which apparently exceeds the ranges in other species.

In comparison with other European cave bear samples, the Oase specimens are not alone in showing evidence of carnivory, but the vast majority of specimens from other sites (n=105) have values in the red deer range or lower.

Axes of variation

The paper suggests that the high nitrogen-15 in the Oase cave bears could not have come from the local ungulates (red deer and ibex) because their carbon-13 ratios are extremely different from those species. I think that's a fair speculation, but really there are too many dietary parameters to get an estimate from these two ratios. For example, a primarily vegetarian diet that included a significant amount of fish might explain both ratios (and the wide variation in nitrogen-15, since bears compete for fishing access).

But there are other possible axes of variation. Life history and behavioral variation can affect the isotope ratios. Some of the cave bears across Europe have very low (lower than ungulate) nitrogen-15 values. Hibernation has been suggested previously to explain the correlation of nitrogen-15 values with estimates of temperature, the idea being that bears facing colder winters are dormant for longer periods.

The hibernation story raises the question of the impact of long-term climate change on isotope ratios. The channel through which climate changes may affect the uptake of different isotopes into plants and animals is unclear -- it seems to involve temperature and rainfall as they modulate diet availability. Here's a chart of the carbon and nitrogen stable isotopes in Pleistocene Europe in three different carnivores:

Carbon and nitrogen stable isotopes in European herbivores over time

Carbon (top) and nitrogen (bottom) stable isotopes in European herbivores (horse, cattle, and deer) over time. Figure 1 from Hedges et al. 2004.

None of this casts any doubt on the paper's results -- the Oase cave bears simply seem to have been higher on the food chain than most other cave bears sampled across Europe. I just raise them to note the demands that paleoecologists are placing on these isotope ratios. Especially when the species in question has substantial dietary flexibility, like bears, we should probably figure that diet choices are the largest component of variation. That means that we should probably be skeptical about the impact of smaller-scale variations, such as climate, unless there is very strong evidence for dietary stability over the relevant time scales.

Since many large European mammals were undergoing large range contractions or extinctions during this time period, we should expect that the surviving species may have undergone substantial changes in niche partitioning and dietary choices. Humans -- whose isotope ratios are in many ways the most interesting -- would be included in this number.

Bear paleoecology

I think the best passage from the paper is the end of the discussion, where the authors compare the dietary and ecological flexibility of extant ursids as a way of contextualizing the cave bears.

As a consequence of these 15N values, the dietary ecology of modern, higher-latitude bears (excluding polar bears) is relevant for that of cave bears, especially the North American brown bears (U. arctos, including the Kodiak and grizzly bears) given their high-latitude range, body-size variation, occupation of regions with less human ecological impact than most of Eurasia, and extensive database. Brown bear diets range from almost completely vegetarian, including ones with substantial amounts of fruit/berries, to ones containing a substantial amount of fish and/or ungulate meat (19-21, 29, 30, 44, 45). All aspects of their omnivorous diets have limitations in availability, potential feeding rates, and nutritional value in any given environment; adequate weight gain for survival, reproduction, and hibernation therefore depends on a mix of as many food resources as are available (19, 21). Meat consumption, in particular, varies widely among and within brown bear populations, due, among non-maritime bears, to the availability of ungulate fauna (29, 30, 44, 45). Large adult males also appear to be more carnivorous than females or subadult bears (28, 29). North American black bears (U. americanus) appear to have similar plant/meat dietary proportions as brown bears (29), except that the larger brown bears are frequently more carnivorous when the prime meat is maritime (e.g., salmon) (46). This ecological flexibility of modern brown bears therefore makes an appropriate model to understand the range of isotopic values now available for European cave bears, both within and between site-specific samples (Richards et al. 2008:4).

Europe presents a problem of bear competition similar in many ways to the current North American case, in that different ecologically flexible species are differentiated by size. In North America, the larger brown bears exclude access to salmon fishing sites from the smaller black bears.

But in Europe, the brown bears were the smaller species. That helps to make sense of the isotope results on Pleistocene European brown bears, which have even lower nitrogen-15 values than the cave bears (Bocherens et al. 2004).

As for the cave bears, I suppose not even pic-a-nic baskets are out of the question....

A genetic afterthought

There is also this:

Genetic Affinities. To provide additional confirmation of the morphological evidence, mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) was extracted, amplified, and sequenced from 19 ursid samples (SI Table 2). All 19 individual sequences of the Peçstera cu Oase ursids show clear affinity to central European cave bear sequences (35) rather than to brown bears. They do not form a monophyletic group within cave bear mtDNA variation, and the range of the Oase bear haplotypes is spread throughout most of the variability known for central European cave bear populations from southern Germany, Austria, Croatia, and Slovakia (35-37).

If we expect to have any hope of working out the phylogeography of ancient humans (like Neandertals), then we have to be able to work out the movements of many ancient mammals. That's the only chance of cross-The cave bears look a bit like the Neandertal pattern -- probably not surprising since they are both medium-bodied omnivorous mammals. That's encouraging.


Bocherens H, Argant A, Argant J, Billiou D, Crégut-Bonnoure E, Donat-Ayache B, Philippe M, Thinon M. 2004. Diet reconstruction of ancient brown bears (Ursus arctos) from Mont Ventoux (France) using bone collagen stable isotope biogeochemistry (13C, 15N). Can J Zool 82:576-586.

Hedges REM, Stevens RE, Richards MP. 2004. Bone as a stable isotope archive for local climatic information. Quatern Sci Rev 23:959-965. doi:doi:10.1016/j.quascirev.2003.06.022

Richards MP, Pacher M, Stiller M, Quilès J, Hofreiter M, Constantin S, Zilhão J, Trinkaus E. 2008. Isotopic evidence for omnivory among European cave bears: Late Pleistocene Ursus spelaeus from the Peçstera cu Oase, Romania. Proc Nat Acad Sci USA (online early) doi:10.1073/pnas.0711063105