Over 25,000 years ago, the massive cave bear, Ursus spelaeus, shared the planet with our early ancestors. This Pleistocene animal was larger and stronger than even most modern grizzly bears, a fearsome predator that staked its claim all across Eurasia. Only today’s polar bear comes close to its enormous size. They measured up to 2 m (6.6 ft) in length and could carry over 1,000 kg (2,200 lbs) on their frames.
📸 A skull of Ursus spelaeus found at Gargas cave in France.
The cave bear’s high weight likely helped them survive the colder climate of the planet in the Pleistocene and fossil evidence shows they grew larger during glaciation periods than interglacials. Cave bears also had large skulls with broader foreheads than their modern counterparts. Fossils from this species are almost always found in caves. In fact, cave bear remains are found more commonly in Pleistocene Era cave sites than any other species. However, this doesn’t mean that the cave bear spent all its time in the dark. Rather, it's possible that these caves were common hideouts for hibernation, as well as being the best place for a bear's skeleton to be preserved against scavengers.
📸 Rosenmüller's sketch of a cave bear skull
Cave bear bones were first discovered at Gailenruth Cave in southern Germany by professor Thomas Grebner of Würzburg University in 1748, a learned man who nonetheless mistook the bones as belonging to a giant human. Later scientists identified the bones as belonging to a bear, the species named by anatomist Johann Christian Rosenmüller in 1794 based off a skull found at Gailenruth. Rosenmüller was an early evolutionist and used his writing on Ursus spelaeus to advance the theory that environmental changes could spawn off new species.
📸 THE DRACHENHÖHLE
Caves made an excellent place for the animals to hide during the cold winters and hibernate in peace. During this time, as in modern bears, the cave bear’s heart rate and breathing would slow to a crawl while the bear relied on its massive fat stores for sustenance. Many of the cave bear remains found likely belong to bears that died during hibernation due to disease, exposure, or old age. Predation is less likely as cave bears had no natural predators, which means finding a member that died from an animal attack would be very rare.
One cave in Austria known as Drachenhöhle Mixnitz, or “Dragon's Cave of Mixnitz,” has had over 30,000 cave bear fossils discovered within its network. Since the Middle Ages, people have been finding bones and pulling them from the cave, with some believing them to be the bones of dragons.
With so many fossils, you’d be tempted to think there was a mass dying of animals here, but in actuality only one bear every other winter would have needed to die during the glaciation period in the winter to fill the cave.
📸 Cave Bear Tooth fossils from Mini Museum
There is a lot that can be learned from the teeth of one of these bears. They had only one molar on either side, which was elongated with many cusps. This structure indicates a diet that relied on crushing and grinding. Scientists believe that while they were omnivorous they mostly stuck to plants.
Nuts, hard seeds, roots, berries, and tough foliage would all have been sources of energy for cave bears. During the warmer months, cave bears would have left their dens and searched for food before sheltering down again in the winter.
📸 A PLEISTOCENE ERA CAVE PAINTING OF A BEAR FROM LES COMBARELLES IN FRANCE
Cave bears had a relatively short history as a species. They are thought to have evolved about 700,000 years ago and went extinct during the Last Glacial Maximum around 22,000 BCE. The cause of their extinction isn’t well known, though climate change and loss of food sources likely played a role. Another possibility is competition for habitat with humans.
Cave paintings of bears date back 32,000 years and any cave with humans in it would not have been safe for bears to hibernate in. Large portions of the population may have simply froze to death without shelter from the winter cold
📸 A reconstructed cave bear skeleton on display at Bear's Cave in Sonnenbühl, Germany
📸 A Cave Bear tooth fossil in hand
Cave Bear Teeth
Learn more about this Pleistocene creature up close and personal with these cave bear teeth! These fossils come from the species Ursus spelaeus and were recovered in modern day Poland. They are estimated to be at least 25,000 years old.
Each specimen is a genuine fossil from Ursus spelaeus. These cave bear specimens are sold individually and vary in size and shape. Some pieces may show signs of wear from the years.
A small information and authenticity card about the fossil is included with each specimen. Specimens from this species are quite rare and they are very valuable finds. You can see all the currently available cave bear teeth in the collection below!
Buckland, William. “Account of an Assemblage of Fossil Teeth and Bones of Elephant, Rhinoceros, Hippopotamus, Bear, Tiger, and Hyaena, and Sixteen Other Animals; Discovered in a Cave at Kirkdale, Yorkshire, in the Year 1821: With a Comparative View of Five Similar Caverns in Various Parts of England, and Others on the Continent.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, vol. 112, 1822, pp. 171–236.
Grandal-d’Anglade, Aurora et al. “The Cave Bear’s Hibernation: Reconstructing the Physiology and Behaviour of an Extinct Animal.” Historical biology 31.4 (2019): 429–441. Web.
Kurtén, Björn. The Cave Bear Story : Life and Death of a Vanished Animal. New York: Columbia University Press, 1976. Print.
Kurtén, Björn. “THE CAVE BEAR.” Scientific American, vol. 226, no. 3, 1972, pp. 60–73.
Stiner, Mary C. “Cave Bear Ecology and Interactions with Pleistocene Humans.” Ursus, vol. 11, 1999, pp. 41–58.