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What Does a Cave Bear’s Jawbone Tell Us, Ms Van Heteren?

By Kristin Hüttmann

Anneke van Heteren has a penchant for skeletons. She studies bones to investigate the lifestyle of extinct mammals. Cave bears, which lived more than 25,000 years ago, are the palaeontologist’s special field. She thinks the bears were herbivorous.

Anneke van Heteren
Anneke van Heteren (Photo: Humboldt Foundation / Constantin Mirbach)

During the Late Pleistocene, a warm period was followed by an ice age. At the time, two species of bear were living in Europe: the omnivorous brown bear and the now-extinct cave bear. Ever since the first cave bear fossils were discovered, researchers have been debating what the animals fed on. In order to answer this question, Anneke van Heteren has been measuring the jawbones and skulls of cave bears and living bears today and comparing the data. Known as geometric morphometrics, this method has shown that the lower jaw of cave bears and pandas developed quite similarly in the course of evolution. “This suggests that cave bears had the same kind of diet as pandas, and that they were vegetarians,” says van Heteren.

“Knowing what cave bears ate is important if you want to understand why they became extinct,” she says. It was probably not just a lack of plant food but human beings in combination with climate change. This kind of knowledge, she believes, helps us to take action against today’s species extinction. “We can’t change the panda’s nutrition,” says the palaeontologist, “but we can influence the causes that are induced by the climate and humans.” 

published in Humboldt Kosmos 110/2019

From 2013 to 2015, Dr Anneke Van Heteren was a Humboldt Research Fellow at the University of Bonn. She is now in charge of the section Mammalogy at the Bavarian State Collection of Zoology in Munich.