Skip to main content
Move the World.
cave bear dna

Lead Image © Erik Mandre / Adobe Stock

Scientists have sequenced the DNA from the ear bone of an ancient cave bear — an extinct relative of the polar and brown bears. 

It may come as a surprise that the 360,000-year-old genetic material even survived the test of time. Until now, any preserved DNA that old had been frozen in permafrost, like the million-year-old mammal teeth that recently made headlines. Because DNA decays over time, the really old stuff needed to be kept on ice. This also limited genetic studies of extinct animals to those that roamed the polar regions.

But this cave bear's bone was found in a temperate climate (in what is now the country of Georgia), where DNA degrades more quickly. This new research shows that the opportunity for genetic analysis could be much greater, both in space and time, than we realized.

cave bear

Cave bears skulls from the Kudaro Caves. Credit: Gennady Baryshinikov

"With DNA, we can decipher the genetic code of extinct animals long after they've gone, but over thousands of years, the DNA present in ancient samples slowly disappears, creating a time limit of how far back in time you can normally go," Axel Barlow, a paleogeneticist from Nottingham Trent University, said in a statement.

"Our study shows that this amazing molecule can survive even longer than previously thought, opening up new opportunities for genetic investigation over previously unimaginable timescales."

Cave bears once roamed the Eurasian continent until they went extinct about 24,000 years ago, during the peak of the last Ice Age. They coexisted and interbred with the brown bear, and the modern brown bear still has traces of the cave bear genome.

Larger than brown bears, the huge vegetarians got their name from hibernating in caves during the winter, where many died because they hadn't fattened up enough. The researchers from Nottingham Trent University and the University of Potsdam in Germany used an ear bone found in the Kudaro Caves, in the Southern Caucasus Mountains, for their genetic research.

The team extracted DNA from the bone, and then they used a computer to sort through the billions of short DNA fragments. By comparing it to a reference genome from the modern brown bear, they were able to weed out contaminating DNA — likely from bacteria and fungus that had been picked up over the years — and reassemble the ancient genome.

Their results, published in Current Biology, confirm that the polar bear and brown bear, the cave bear's living relatives, all had a common ancestor. Their evolutionary lineages split about 1.5 million years ago.

"Interestingly, these separations happen pretty much around the time when the ice age cycles became more extreme, so it looks like climate has influenced the evolution of these bear species quite a bit," Michael Hofreiter, the senior author of the study and a researcher at the University of Potsdam told Gizmodo.

In terms of evolutionary lineage, the separation of brown, polar, and cave bears, and the end of interbreeding between the cave and brown bears, all happened about one million years ago, when the planet became colder, and ice ages were long and intense.

The cave bear started to disappear near the first signs of early humans, who painted images of cave bears, and their spear points have been found in some cave bear bones. But the bear that this ear bone belonged to could have lived before our species, Homo sapiens, even existed.

We'd love to hear from you! If you have a comment about this article or if you have a tip for a future Freethink story, please email us at [email protected]

Up Next

Animals
We Need a Better Way To Track Polar Bears. This Father and Son Found a Way.
polar bear tracker
Animals
We Need a Better Way To Track Polar Bears. This Father and Son Found a Way.
A father-son duo has teamed up to develop four different temporary tracking devices being tested by polar bears in the far North.

A father-son duo has teamed up to develop four different temporary tracking devices being tested by polar bears in the far North.

AI
“This DNA Is Not Real”: Why Scientists Are Deepfaking the Human Genome
artificial genomes
AI
“This DNA Is Not Real”: Why Scientists Are Deepfaking the Human Genome
Researchers taught an AI to make artificial genomes, which could advance genetic research without compromising the privacy of individuals.

Researchers taught an AI to make artificial genomes, which could advance genetic research without compromising the privacy of individuals.

Dinosaurs
Gators and Guineafowl May Help Us Understand How Dinosaurs Moved
how dinosaurs moved
Dinosaurs
Gators and Guineafowl May Help Us Understand How Dinosaurs Moved
Using x-ray 3D-imaging techniques, researchers are turning to gators and guineafowl to better understand how dinosaurs moved.

Using x-ray 3D-imaging techniques, researchers are turning to gators and guineafowl to better understand how dinosaurs moved.

Aerospace
The Plan to Convert Space Debris Into Labs for Astronauts
space debris
Aerospace
The Plan to Convert Space Debris Into Labs for Astronauts
Space services company Nanoracks plans to convert space debris into orbiting “Outposts” that could serve as hotels, research parks, and more.

Space services company Nanoracks plans to convert space debris into orbiting “Outposts” that could serve as hotels, research parks, and more.

Planet Earth
This Magnetic Sponge May Be the Key to Oil Spill Cleanup
Oil spill cleanup
Planet Earth
This Magnetic Sponge May Be the Key to Oil Spill Cleanup
A new magnetic sponge makes the job of oil spill cleanup safer for the environment.

A new magnetic sponge makes the job of oil spill cleanup safer for the environment.

Dope Science
Intro to LSD
Intro to LSD
Dope Science
Intro to LSD
LSD, also known as acid, is a synthetic chemical that causes hallucinations, synesthesia, and sometimes, distress - the dreaded “bad trip.”

LSD, also known as acid, is a synthetic chemical that causes hallucinations, synesthesia, and sometimes, distress - the dreaded “bad trip.”

Below the Surface
The Fleet of Underwater Drones Probing Earth’s Interior
underwater drones
Below the Surface
The Fleet of Underwater Drones Probing Earth’s Interior
The Earth’s interior may be the last wild frontier, but not for long. These underwater drones are scanning the ocean to create a 3D model of its internal dynamics.

The Earth’s interior may be the last wild frontier, but not for long. These underwater drones are scanning the ocean to create a 3D model of its internal dynamics.

Superhuman
The Exoskeleton Marathon Racer
The Exoskeleton Marathon Racer
Watch Now
Superhuman
The Exoskeleton Marathon Racer
How do you bounce back from a life-changing car accident? Adam Gorlitsky decided he would break a world record.
Watch Now

How do you bounce back from a life-changing car accident? Adam Gorlitsky decided he would break a world record. In a weird way, it’s a good time to be paralyzed Adam Gorlitsky Adam was paralyzed from the waist down in a terrible wreck and thought his track and field days were over. But once approved for an experimental exoskeleton, he...

Dispatches
Two Billion People Have TB. What Should We Do about It?
Two Billion People Have TB. What Should We Do about It?
Dispatches
Two Billion People Have TB. What Should We Do about It?
In the fight against TB, sometimes it's better to just get along.

In the fight against TB, sometimes it's better to just get along.