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

Mary C. Stiner, Hema Achyuthan, Güven Arsebük, F. Clark Howell, Steven C. Josephson, Kenneth E. Juell, Jeffrey Pigati, Jay Quade

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

63 Scopus citations


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 only slightly skewed toward females. This pattern lies near one extreme of the full range of possible outcomes in modern bear species and can only reflect a strong dietary dependence on seasonally available plants and invertebrates, showing that hibernation was a crucial overwintering strategy for both sexes; the results specifically contradict the possibility of regular, heavy emphasis on large game (hunted or scavenged) as a winter food source. The nature of wear and breakage to the adult cave bear teeth indicates that food frequently was obtained from cryptic sources, requiring digging and prying, and that extensive mastication was necessary, leading to complete obliteration of some cheek tooth crowns in old individuals. The patterns of tooth damage during life corroborate the dietary implications of the adult sex ratio and also argue for a diet rich in tough, abrasive materials such as nuts, tubers, and associated grit. The carbon and oxygen isotopic compositions of cave and brown bear tooth enamel from the site are virtually identical, and there is no evidence of a strong marine signal in either species, despite the cave's proximity to a modern estuary of the Sea of Marmara; nitrogen isotope ratios could not be examined because of poor protein preservation. The isotope results suggest that both bear species were highly omnivorous in the region during the middle Pleistocene and obtained nearly all of their food from terrestrial and fresh-water habitats. Bone pathologies, usually originating from trauma, occur in some of the adult bears, testifying to long lifespans of some individuals in this fossil population. The Yarimburgaz cave bears also exhibit great size dimorphism between the sexes, based on weight-bearing carpal bone dimensions, with adult males attaining roughly twice the body mass of adult females.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)74-98
Number of pages25
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1998

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences
  • Palaeontology


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