Reconstructing cave bear paleoecology from skeletons: a cross-disciplinary study of middle Pleistocene bears from Yarimburgaz Cave, Turkey


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January 1998


Cave bears, an extinct subgenus (Spelearctos) of Ursus, were versatile enough to inhabit large areas of the northern hemisphere during the middle and late Pleistocene, yet they had evolved a specialized dentition that emphasized grinding functions, implying a heavy dietary reliance on tough, fibrous foods (i.e., plants). Isotope studies have yielded conflicting results on cave bear diet, however, often without consideration of the provenance of the samples or the possible contradictions that taphonomic and morphologic evidence might pose to dietary interpretations. It is likely that cave bear habits varied somewhat in response to environmental circumstance, and the limits on their abilities to do so remain unknown. If the larger goal of paleontological inquiry is to reconstruct the adaptations of cave bear species, then variation and commonalities among populations must be tracked closely, and the disparate lines of evidence currently available examined together on a case by case basis. Clearly, no single analytical technique can achieve this. By way of example we present the results of a cross-disciplinary collaboration that combines osteometric, isotopic, and taphonomic approaches to studying the paleoecology of a bear assemblage from Yarimburgaz Cave in northwest Turkey. Reference information on the linkages between diet, hibernation, and population structure in modern bears provides test implications for the investigation. Osteometric techniques demonstrate the presence of two coextant middle Pleistocene bear species in the sample–Ursus (Spelearctos) deningeri, a form of cave bear, and U. arctos or brown bear–the former abundant in the sample, the latter rare. An attritional mortality pattern for the bears and the condition of their bones show that most or all of the animals died in the cave from nonviolent causes in the context of hibernation. The study also elucidates several characteristics of the cave bear population in this region. Osteometric techniques show that the adult sex ratio of the cave bears is

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Paleobiology, Vol. 24, no. 1 (1998).