The cave bear’s hibernation: reconstructing the physiology and behaviour of an extinct animal


Link to Full Text

Download Full Text

Publication Date

May 2018


When studying an extinct species such as the cave bear (Ursus spelaeus ROSENMÜLLER 1794), it is possible to apply a variety of molecular biology techniques such as the study of stable isotopes or mitochondrial DNA (mDNA) to infer patterns of behaviour or physiology that would otherwise remain concealed. Throughout Europe and along time, differences in the isotopic values (δ13C and δ15N) of cave bears arise from environmental differences and the Pleistocene climatic evolution. The climate determines the hibernation length, during which the cave bears undergo a particular physiology that can be related to an increase in δ15N during climate cooling. In order to verify whether hibernation affected the isotopic values, we compared cave bears in different ontogenetic stages. The results show that perinatal values reflect the values for mothers during hibernation, while juveniles show differences in maternal investment. A previous study in the literature based on complete mitochondrial DNA sequences of several individuals collected from closely situated caves showed that each cave housed, almost exclusively, a single lineage of haplotypes. This pattern suggests extreme fidelity to the birth site, or homing behaviour, and that cave bears formed stable maternal social groups, at least for the purpose of hibernation. Studies of this type offer unexpected data on the palaeobiology of this extinct animal.


Ursus Spelaeus, Metabolism, Stable Isotopes, Ancient DNA, Homing Behaviour

Document Type