Humans, not glaciers, likely doomed Ice Age cave bears

Analysis of genetic material from dozens of prehistoric bears shows that their decline neatly matches the arrival of Homo sapiens in Europe.

Neanderthals lived in Europe for thousands of centuries, and during that time, they had to watch their step. Mammoths, woolly rhinos, and saber-tooth cats were common in the region, and the caves these human relatives would sometimes enter for shelter were often already occupied by cave bears, the heaviest adults of which may have weighed over 2,000 pounds.

Today, controversy swirls around the question of why all these large animals eventually disappeared. Some scientists think they were victims of the last glacial maximum, which peaked around 26,500 years ago. Other experts have argued that the appearance of a new human species with a knack for hunting, Homo sapiens, could have driven the unfortunate beasts to extinction.

Now, research presented in the journal Scientific Reports suggests that in the case of cave bears, humans most likely played a crucial role.

“If not for our arrival in Europe, I don’t see any reason why cave bears should not be around today,” says study coauthor Hervé Bocherens, a paleobiologist at the University of Tübingen in Germany who has studied cave bear remains for 30 years.

In some ways, the result may foreshadow the situation of today’s brown bear, which currently has a stable population but may soon be at risk due to conflicts with humans in an increasingly crowded and warming world. (Find out why living brown bears retain traces of cave bear DNA.)

Clan of the cave bear

Bocherens and a team of researchers led by Verena Schuenemann at the University of Zürich in Switzerland collected the remains of 59 cave bears found across Europe to extract what’s known as mitochondrial DNA, or mtDNA. These small bits of genetic material are only inherited from an animal’s mother and can reveal genetic relationships between animals found at different locations. Crucially, however, mtDNA can also provide clues to past population sizes.

“Models of the genetics of populations tell us that the more diverse the mtDNA found in fossils from the same period, the larger the population must have been, allowing us to estimate the number of bears at any point in time,” Bocherens says.

GENETICS 101What is a genome, and how are traits passed from generation to generation? Learn how pea plants helped launch the study of genetics and how the field of genetics research has evolved over time.

When the scientists ran their analysis, the data suggested that the cave bear decline started some 40,000 years ago—long before the last ice age set in. This also means that cave bears thrived throughout a number of earlier periods when temperatures significantly decreased. Instead, their downward trend starts right about the same time that our species began to spread across Europe.

“There is some evidence suggesting some modern humans may have set foot in Europe even earlier,” Bocherens says. “But as far as we know, they only really populated the continent around the time the cave bears start declining.”

Though Neanderthals were probably killing cave bears as well, modern humans may have used more advanced hunting techniques and were probably more likely to venture into caves, Bocherens argues. Soon, anatomically modern humans became much more numerous than Neanderthals had ever been, sealing the cave bear’s fate.

The work “represents the maximum amount of information we can get from mtDNA data,” says Michael Knapp, a paleobiologist now based at the University of Otago in New Zealand. Knapp was not involved in the present study, but he published an earlier paper based on a more limited dataset that found similar results.

Bear necessities

Humans may have killed cave bears not just for their meat, but also for their fur or even simply because they were perceived as a threat. And as more humans settled in Europe, cave bears may have had a harder time moving into milder climates when it became cold, or finding the abundant plant foods required to sustain their large bodies. Remnant populations survived only in remote corners of Europe, such as the Italian Alps, where the most recent remains appear to be about 24,000 years old.

“Yet as these populations grew more and more isolated, they became genetically impoverished, as it was increasingly difficult for animals to travel between populations to find a mate,” Bocherens says. This may have weakened their offspring and could have made the bears more vulnerable to disease.

Meanwhile, brown bears survived into the modern era, perhaps because they were smaller and had more flexible diets that included meat they probably scavenged from large predators. Still, the decline of the cave bears carries a warning for brown bears, Bocherens says.

“First of all,” he says, “it shows that the most isolated populations are at risk, and that we should do whatever we can to allow some exchange of individuals between them, even if that means moving animals around ourselves.”

Perhaps even more importantly, he adds, the climate is again changing drastically, this time due to the actions of Homo sapiens, and that meansit is not enough to have nature reserves where the animals are left alone. In a world increasingly cluttered with roads, railways, fences, and buildings, we must also preserve the bears’ ability to travel around and keep their populations healthy and diverse.

“Species may survive a changing climate if they can track the changing temperatures,” Bocherens says. “But as the example of the cave bear shows us, climate change can be a very big problem if you cannot move.”

Alberta not likely to follow through with spear hunt ban until fall 2018

‘The legislation would refer to firearms and archery equipment as the only permitted weapons to be used.’

The Canadian Press Posted: Sep 21, 2017

Alberta does not expect to make good on a promise to ban what it has called the archaic practice of spear-hunting until at least next fall as it considers rule changes that could include prohibiting other methods of taking big game.

The government made the pledge in August 2016 after an online video surfaced showing an American hunter throwing a spear at a black bear in northern Alberta and then cheering to celebrate his kill.

People around the world reacted angrily to the video. Some called the use of a spear barbaric.

Matt Besko, director of wildlife policy for Alberta Environment, said the province is looking at updating regulations that already spell out rules for standard hunting weapons such as firearms and bows, but say nothing about other methods.

“It is not just about spears,” Besko said. “When we looked at our legislation, there are other potential inhumane or unethical methods that could be used.

“The legislation would refer to firearms and archery equipment as the only permitted weapons to be used to harvest game species in Alberta. All other methods would be prohibited.”

Some other non-standard hunting methods include the atlatl, a kind of stick a hunter can use to throw a dart or a short spear at prey.

Using rocks to kill game or running an animal to the point of exhaustion or death could be prohibited under changes.

Besko said Alberta began surveying the public about non-standard hunting methods in 2014.

‘Very small’ segment of hunting community

There was already opposition to the use of spears before the government received a storm of angry letters, emails and social media comments about the 2016 bear video.

“The large majority of respondents to that survey disagreed with the use of those so-called non-standard weapons, including spears,” he said.

“There is a segment of the hunting community — and it is a very small component — that actually use spears and atlatls.”

The government has been getting some pushback.

Earlier this year, the Alberta Fish and Game Association approved a motion that called on the province to maintain legal spear and atlatl hunting.

Martin Sharren, the association’s vice-president, said there aren’t a lot of people who use spears, but the organization is wary of hunting restrictions.

“It is another hunting opportunity that if it gets taken away, it gets taken away,” he said.

Brent Watson, president of the Alberta Bowhunters Association, said his members have different views on spear-hunting and clear rules are needed to ensure that animals are hunted humanely.

Besko said no final decisions have been made and the government could include hunting rule changes as part of a broader update to Alberta’s Wildlife Act.

Draft proposals are to be presented to the government within a year.

“The earliest that a decision could be made would be for the fall of 2018 and that is if all things would align in terms of the external review process.”

Josh Bowmar, the hunter who killed the bear with the spear, was not charged after the province determined that he had legally harvested the animal.

http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/edmonton/spear-hunting-albetra-1.4301433