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Isotopic evidence for dietary flexibility among European Late Pleistocene cave bears (Ursus spelaeus)

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The proposed dietary pattern of extinct Late Pleistocene cave bears (Ursus spelaeus Rosenmüller, 1794) has become controversial, as some authors have suggested that they were strictly vegetarian, whereas others maintain they were omnivores that at times ate large amounts of animal protein. We evaluated these alternatives by compiling stable isotope data of carbon (δ13C) and nitrogen (δ15N) from the bone collagen of adult European cave bears from the Late Pleistocene (Marine Isotopic Stage 3). The data include previously published analyses and additional data from the southeastern European (Carpathian) sites of Cioclovina, Muierii, Oase, and Urşilor. The cave bear isotopic values from bone collagen were compared with those from hair keratin occurring in grizzly bears (Ursus arctos horribilis Ord, 1815) collected from 1989 to 2009 in the western United States (Yellowstone National Park). The Yellowstone bears have access to a wide diversity of plants and animals, such that their diets can range from vegetarian to carnivorous. Thus, there was considerable δ13C and δ15N variation among the grizzly bear isotopic values, and the cave bear isotopic variation was encompassed within the overall grizzly bear isotopic distribution. More importantly, the δ15N distributions, reflecting principally trophic level, were not different between the cave bears and the grizzly bears; the cave bear values are, on average, slightly higher or lower than those of the grizzly bears, depending on the criteria for inclusion in the comparisons. It is therefore no longer appropriate to view Late Pleistocene cave bears as strictly or even predominantly vegetarian but as flexible omnivores within their diverse communities.
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Keywords: Europe; Ursus arctos horribilis; Ursus spelaeus; Yellowstone; azote; carbon; carbone; cave bear; grizzly; grizzly bear; isotope stable; nitrogen; ours des cavernes; paleodiet; paléoalimentation; stable isotope

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Institutul de Speologie “Emil Racoviţă”, str. Calea 13 Septembrie 13, 050711 Bucharest, Romania. 2: School of Biological Sciences, Washington State University, Pullman, WA 99164-4236, USA. 3: Department of Anthropology, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC V6T 1Z1, Canada; Department of Human Evolution, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Deutscher Platz 6, 04103 Leipzig, Germany. 4: U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center, Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, 2327 University Way, Suite 2, Bozeman, MT 59715, USA. 5: Department of Geology, University of South Florida, 4202 East Fowler Avenue, SCA528, Tampa, FL 33620, USA. 6: School of the Environment and School of Biological Sciences, Washington State University, Pullman, WA 99164-4236, USA. 7: Department of Anthropology, Washington University, Saint Louis, MO 63130, USA.

Publication date: 2013-02-11

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  • Published since 1929, this monthly journal reports on primary research contributed by respected international scientists in the broad field of zoology, including behaviour, biochemistry and physiology, developmental biology, ecology, genetics, morphology and ultrastructure, parasitology and pathology, and systematics and evolution. It also invites experts to submit review articles on topics of current interest.
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