Palaeoecology of cave bears as evidenced by dental wear analysis: a review of methods and recent findings

Gildas Merceron


The study of dental wear was first used years ago to infer the palaeoecology of fossil mammals and in particular their diet. Results depend predominantly on the scale of the analysis used. Analyses of dental macrowear, mesowear or microwear do not provide the same type of dietary information, be it about the seasonal, annual or lifetime diet. This contribution focuses on emblematic species, cave bears (Ursidae), in particular Ursus spelaeus spelaeus. Methods used by previous researchers to infer their dietary preferences and thus their palaeoecology are reviewed and compared. This review is complemented by an analysis of several specimens of cave bears from the Goyet cave in Belgium, using dental microwear texture analysis (DMTA), a methodology widely applied for reconstructing palaeodiets. Three main conclusions are drawn here: (1) DMTA is the method that provides the most precise palaeobiological inferences; (2) during the pre-dormancy period, cave bears show dietary flexibility; (3) dental wear alone might be not sufficient to provide a complete reconstruction of the cave bear palaeodiet.