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The Cave Bear Story

by Bjorn Kurten

163 pages, paperback, Columbia University Press, 1995

No extinct mammal can be studied in more detail, from a fuller fossil record, than the cave bear. The Cave Bear Story presents the facts about these largest of bears, their habits and society, their Ice Age environment, biological variations, and extinction, and their relations with humans. Numerous attractive and informative drawings by Margaret Lambert illustrate the text.

Praise for The Cave Bear Story

One of the finest paleontologists of our time, Bjorn Kurten is a marvel."--Stephen Jay Gould

Quotes from The Cave Bear Story

"No one escapes his fate. It might be said that my affair with the cave bear started half a century ago when it was decided to give the child a name that happens to be Swedish for bear. There were some early difficulties in living up to it, but in time it led to the distinction of a mention in the 'Authors and Subjects' section of the Journal of Insignificant Research. Still, the real thing began in the early 1950s. Eager to apply newfangled population ideas on fossil mammals, I was casting about for a statistically respectable sample of some fossil mammal--any fossil mammal. The one that happened to be at hand had been collected a hundred years earlier, and had been lying, more or less forgotten, for many decades in the cupboards of the geology department of the University of Helsinki. It was the cave bear: hundreds and hundreds of teeth and bones.

"I spend happy hours playing around with them and with the ensuing statistics. But, of course, there came the time when I had to go and find out if other cave bears, elsewhere, behaved the same way. Well, some did and some did not, and this made it necessary to look at other species of bears and see how they behaved. And there you are--there is no end to it.

"The fossils told me a great deal about how the bears were put together and how they worked, but the best aspect of it all was that they revealed many other things as well. That is what I hope to show the reader in this book. The cave bear is its central figure; but the story is also about the excitement of discovery; the grandeur of the past; the dynamics of life and death in nature; evolution, its now well-traced course and rate; the relationship between bear and man; and the enigma of extinction." --from the Author's Note

. . .

"Few extinct animals are known from such a great number of fossil remains as the cave bear. Because there is such a wealth of information, a uniquely detailed picture of its anatomy and life history can be constructed. The same may be said of the origin of the cave bear. Almost every stage in its history can be traced back, in unbroken lineage, for 5 million years or more. And we occasionally get glimpses of still older stages in this long history."

"Was the cave bear a common or a rare animal? When we look at the fabulous concentration of bear remains in some caves, our first impression must surely be that these animals were very numerous indeed. There are in existence old life restorations showing droves of bears, almost like a herd of buffalo or some other grazing animal. The German geologist Albrecht Penck, one of the great pioneers in the study of the Ice Age, was even moved to say that Europe must have been flooded by cave bears at some time in the Pleistocene, most probably, he thought, during the Eemian interglacial.

"But Professor Wolfgang Soergel, of Freiburg, Germany, soon pointed out that a different explanation was possible. Many of the caves, he stated, served as lairs for cave bears for thousands of years. The Mixnitz cave, for instance, was inhabited by bears both before and during the Weichselian glaciation; this gives a total duration of perhaps 100,000 years or even more. And we need only one bear dead in the cave every other year, on average, to add up to the estimated 30,000 to 50,000 individuals. Soergel concluded that the amassing of remains was due to intensive sampling out of a continuously small standing population.

"Just how small? One bear dead every other year indicates a population of about 2.5 individuals or, as we cannot operate with fractional individuals, a population fluctuating in size between, say, one and four. Sometimes there might be a female with her young; at other times, two or three bachelors wintering in different parts of the cave, and so on. Far from being flooded by bears, the cave bear range was quite sparsely populated at all times."

. . .

"If we try to chart the size changes in the cave bear line, we find an early culmination in the Elster glaciation (about 500,000 to 600,000 years ago), with very large forms of Deninger's cave bear. This was followed by a size reduction in the Holsteinian interglacial, a slight increase during the Saale glaciation, and a renewed dwarfing in the Eemian interglacial. Finally, during the last glaciation, the species reached its maximum size, the guise of the so-called 'normal' form.

"Oddly, a somewhat similar pattern of size change--an early size culmination in the Elster glaciation, followed by decrease and a second culmination in the last glaciation-- may be seen in other carnivore species, such as the brown bear, the cave hyena, and the wolverine.

"There is probably some common factor behind this regularity. In 1848, the zoologist Carl Bergmann pointed out that an increase in size will reduce heat loss through the surface of the body, and so would be adaptive in a cold climate. The cave bear in fact seems to obey Bergmann's Rule, at least partially: glacial forms average larger than interglacial. but the trend in somewhat irregular--there is no particularly marked size increase during the Saale glaciation-- and so this is probably not the only factor involved. (Actually, there are also mammals in nature which vary inversely to Bergmann's Rule!)"

Table of Contents of The Cave Bear Story

  1. The Discovery
  2. Bear Bones
  3. Origins
  4. The World of the Cave Bear
  5. Males and Females, Dwarfs and Giants
  6. Man and Bear
  7. Life and Death
  8. The Substitute Cave Bears
  9. The Extinction

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