Isotopic evidence for dietary flexibility among European Late Pleistocene cave bears (Ursus spelaeus)


Link to Full Text

Download Full Text

Publication Date

January 2013


The proposed dietary pattern of extinct Late Pleistocene cave bears (Ursus spelaeus Rosenmüller, 1794) has become controversial, as some authors have suggested that they were strictly vegetarian, whereas others maintain they were omnivores that at times ate large amounts of animal protein. We evaluated these alternatives by compiling stable isotope data of carbon (δ13C) and nitrogen (δ15N) from the bone collagen of adult European cave bears from the Late Pleistocene (Marine Isotopic Stage 3). The data include previously published analyses and additional data from the southeastern European (Carpathian) sites of Cioclovina, Muierii, Oase, and Urşilor. The cave bear isotopic values from bone collagen were compared with those from hair keratin occurring in grizzly bears (Ursus arctos horribilis Ord, 1815) collected from 1989 to 2009 in the western United States (Yellowstone National Park). The Yellowstone bears have access to a wide diversity of plants and animals, such that their diets can range from vegetarian to carnivorous. Thus, there was considerable δ13C and δ15N variation among the grizzly bear isotopic values, and the cave bear isotopic variation was encompassed within the overall grizzly bear isotopic distribution. More importantly, the δ15N distributions, reflecting principally trophic level, were not different between the cave bears and the grizzly bears; the cave bear values are, on average, slightly higher or lower than those of the grizzly bears, depending on the criteria for inclusion in the comparisons. It is therefore no longer appropriate to view Late Pleistocene cave bears as strictly or even predominantly vegetarian but as flexible omnivores within their diverse communities.


Stable Isotope, Carbon, Nitrogen, Cave Bear, Ursus Spelaeus, Grizzly Bear, Ursus Arctos Horribilis, Europe, Yellowstone, Paleodiet

Document Type



Canadian Journal of Zoology, Vol. 91, no. 4 (2013).