Ancient DNA Analyses Reveal High Mitochondrial DNA Sequence Diversity and Parallel Morphological Evolution of Late Pleistocene Cave Bears


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Publication Date

January 2022


Cave bears (Ursus spelaeus) existed in Europe and western Asia until the end of the last glaciation some 10,000 years ago. To investigate the genetic diversity, population history, and relationship among different cave bear populations, we have determined mitochondrial DNA sequences from 12 cave bears that range in age from about 26,500 to at least 49,000 years and originate from nine caves. The samples include one individual from the type specimen population, as well as two small-sized high-Alpine bears. The results show that about 49,000 years ago, the mtDNA diversity among cave bears was about 1.8-fold lower than the current species-wide diversity of brown bears (Ursus arctos). However, the current brown bear mtDNA gene pool consists of three clades, and cave bear mtDNA diversity is similar to the diversity observed within each of these clades. The results also show that geographically separated populations of the high-Alpine cave bear form were polyphyletic with respect to their mtDNA. This suggests that small size may have been an ancestral trait in cave bears and that large size evolved at least twice independently.

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