Evidence for Reproductive Isolation between Cave Bear Populations


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January 2004


The European cave bear (Ursus spelaeus), which became extinct around 15,000 years ago, had several morphologically different forms. Most conspicuous of these were small Alpine cave bears found at elevations of 1,600 to 2,800 m [1, 2, 3]. Whereas some paleontologists have considered these bears a distinct form [4, 5], or even a distinct species [6], others have disputed this [7, 8, 9]. By a combination of morphological and genetic methods, we have analyzed a population of small cave bears from Ramesch Cave (2,000 m altitude) and one of larger cave bears from Gamssulzen Cave (1,300 m), situated approximately 10 km apart in the Austrian Alps (Figure 1A). We find no evidence of mitochondrial gene flow between these caves during the 15,000 years when they were both occupied by cave bears, although mitochondrial DNA sequences identical to those from Gamssulzen Cave could be recovered from a site located about 200 km to the south in Croatia. We also find no evidence that the morphology of the bears in the two caves changed to become more similar over time. We suggest that the two cave bear forms may have represented two reproductively isolated subspecies or species.

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Current Biology, Vol. 14, no. 1 (2004).