Complete cave bear remains discovered on Arctic island | Polarjournal
The two discovered carcasses of the animals are so well preserved that even the soft tissues can still be seen. Until now, only bones of cave bears have been found. But in the permafrost ground of Yakutia, the parts remained perfectly preserved. Photo: Northeastern Federal University

In recent years, on the Russian islands along the Northeast Passage, spectacular finds of animals from the past have been made time and again. Thawed by climate change, the permafrost soil increasingly releases its archaeological treasures. These included well-preserved mammoths, wolves, cave lions and foals. Now a Russian research team has made a sensational discovery on the Great Lyakhov Island, which is one of the New Siberian Islands: the almost perfectly preserved remains of an adult cave bear.

“This find is unique in the world: a complete bear with its soft tissues”

Dr. Lena Grigorieva, Northeastern Federal University

The bear was discovered by reindeer herders on the island, who had subsequently informed the authorities. A research team from Northeast Federal University (NEFU), led by expert Dr. Lena Grigorieva, then conducted the excavations and discovered that the find was a scientific sensation. Until now, only bones and fur remnants of cave bears have been discovered, but no tissue parts. “This find is unique in the world: a complete bear with its soft tissues,” explains Dr. Grigorieva. “He is completely preserved with all his organs in places and even with his nose. So far, only skulls and bones have been found. This discovery is of the utmost importance for the whole world.”

The pictures show how well even the nose and teeth of the animal have been preserved. An initial analysis shows that the bears could be up to 39,000 years old. More details are now being investigated. Photo: Northeastern Federal University

The cave bear cub found on the mainland is also an absolute stroke of luck for science. Because here, too, only bone remnants of it are known. An initial analysis of the finds in relation to age revealed that the animals are between 22,000 and 39,500 years old. “It is necessary to perform a radiocarbon analysis to determine the exact age of the bears,” says Dr. Maxim Cheprasov of the mammoth laboratory in Yakutsk. The researchers hope that they will also be able to extract genetic material from the tissues to gain further insight into the life of the cave bears and confirm their relationship to today’s bear species. Accordingly, international research teams have been invited now to participate in the investigations. “The research is planned on as large a scale as in the study of the famous Malolyakhovsky mammoth”, says Dr. Grigorieva. By this she means the mammoth found in 2012, in which even the muscle tissues and body fluids had been preserved.

Cave bears existed in the middle and late Pleistocene and went extinct about 15,000 years ago. Three species in total are known in the Eurasian region. With more than 3.5 meters in length, 1.3 meters shoulder height and up to a ton of weight, these bears were even slightly larger than polar bears today. In the picture above is a skull, on display in the Natural History Museum Of St. Gallen. Picture: Sergio Dlarosa, CC BY-SA 3.0 Wikicommons (small), Michael Wenger (large)

The finds of the two animals are also fascinating due to their location. Because these animals that lived at the end of the middle and in the whole late Pleistocene (approximately 150,000 – 15,000 years ago) were primarily herbivores and the finds in the known regions therefore suggested that they had found too little food in the tundras and cold steppes of Eurasia. However, recent analyses of teeth and skulls indicated an omnivorous way of life. The discovery of this bear could provide more information about this. Genetic analyses also showed that the giant animals, which could be up to 3.5 metres in length and weighing up to one ton, were closest to brown and polar bears and were found in three different species: from Spain to the Alps, east of the Alps to the Urals and the Caucasus. Recent discoveries also come from the Altai Mountains and a find from northern Sibiria. Most of the finds of the western species came from caves in the Swiss and Austrian Alps. Researchers assume that the animals mostly died during hibernation due to food shortages. The extinction of the bears was probably caused by a combination of cold snap and human hunting pressure by the newly immigrated modern humans.

The New Siberian Islands are located on the northern coast of Russia in the Yakutia Region (officially The Republic of Sacha) and form the border between the Laptev and East Siberian Seas. There are hardly any mountains on the islands, which makes the discovery of the cave bear all the more spectacular.

Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal

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