The Whisker Chronicles

Whiskers are also known as vibrissa, from the latin vibrare "to vibrate". Vibrissa are the specialized hairs on mammals and the bristlelike feathers near the mouths of many birds. Their resonant design is symbolic of the energies, good and bad, that are reverberating throughout the natural world. Every living thing is connected and, by birthright, deserves to exist.

Evolutionary Bears: Giants and Cave Dwellers

Photo courtesy of National Parks Service.

Bear bones found in a cave.
Photo courtesy of Bureau of Land Management.

The earliest bear was about the size of a fox terrier dog and is known as the “Dawn Bear” (Ursavus elemensis) and its remains were found in subtropical Europe.  By comparison to modern day bears, this was one tiny bear.  But there was a bear whose size dwarfed that of modern day bears.

The giant short-faced bear (Arctodus simus), also known as the bulldog bear was the largest carnivorous land mammal ever.  It stood over 11 feet tall when reared on its hind legs and had shoulders that spanned 5 feet.  It could reach up to 14 feet (a basketball rim is 10 feet) and weighed 1,500 to 1,800 pounds in the spring and more than 2,000 pounds in the fall. Arctodus simus would make a mature brown bear look like a cub.  This mega bear lived in North America and fossil records suggest that it is related to the Andean bear (Tremarctos ornatus).

Comparison of giant short-faced bear to modern day brown and polar bears. Image courtesy of National Parks Service.

Comparison of giant short-faced bear to modern day brown and polar bears.
Image courtesy of National Parks Service.

One of the best-known ice age animals is the European cave bear (Ursus spelaeus), who lived in the mountains in present day Germany, France, and Russia and lasted in Europe and Russia for two ice ages. Its head was very large and had a broad, domed skull, steep forehead and small eyes, upward nostrils and a grinding jaw. With a stout body, males weighed up to 880 pounds. Ursus spelaeus was hunted and worshipped by Neanderthal man and has been found in burial positions.

Photo from the creative commons.

Skull of a cave bear (Ursus spelaeus).
Photo from the creative commons.

The Florida cave bear had a broad distribution south of the continental ice sheet and lived along the U.S. Gulf Coast, across Florida, and north to Tennessee.  Evidence suggests it also lived in California, Idaho, New Mexico, Texas, Kansas, Georgia and Mexico.  Its forehead was domed and its body barrel like.  It was large with a heavier build than the short-faced bear, with which it was possibly related.

Cave bears became extinct as early at 15,000 years ago.  Modern science has matched cave bear fossil DNA against dog genes and shown cave bears to fit into the bear family tree right along with the remaining eight bear species that exist in modern times.

Multiple cave bear grottos, caves and holes have been discovered and several of them are considered to be significant in documenting the evolution of cave bears and modern day bears.  For example, in Switzerland, Drachenloch cave was discovered to have rectangular stone tombs filled with cave bear skulls.  Dragons cave in Austria contained more than 30,000 cave bear skeletons.  “Erd” Cave in Hungary contained bones of 500 bears killed by Neanderthals 49,000 years earlier.  The Labor of Love cave in Nevada contained fossils of the bulldog bear, the American black bear (Ursus americanus) and the brown bear (Ursus arctos).

Here is a summary of the location of significant cave bear grottos, caves and holes.

Europe North America Africa
Hungary Maryland South Africa
Germany West Virginia Algeria
Italy Nevada Morocco
England Wyoming
France Pennsylvania
Austria California
Switzerland Florida
Belgium Nuevo Leon

According to Bjorn Kurten in Pleistocene Mammals of Europe, “The cave bear was occasionally hunted by man, but the great accumulation of bones in the caves represents animals that died in hibernation.  Death in winter sleep was apparently the normal end for the cave bear and would mainly befall those individuals that had failed ecologically during the summer season from inexperience, illness or old age.  As a result the remains found are mostly of juvenile, old or diseased animals.”  Extinction was gradual, over thousands of years, and is not significantly attributed to human influence.  There is a lesson there for modern day humans.

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This entry was posted on January 27, 2014 by in Bears, Mammals, Wildlife and tagged , , .
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