Ice Age Cave Bear Found Exquisitely Preserved in Siberian Permafrost

By George Dvorsky

Reindeer herders working on Bolshoy Lyakhovsky Island in arctic Russia have stumbled upon an incredibly well-preserved cave bear, in what scientists say is a discovery of “world importance.”

When it comes to studying extinct cave bears, paleontologists have traditionally dealt with scattered bones and the odd skull. That’s why this new discovery is so important, as the body of the adult cave bear is “completely preserved” with “all internal organs in place including even its nose,” as scientist Lena Grigorieva explained in a North-Eastern Federal University (NEFU) press release describing the specimen. The finds are of “great importance for the whole world,” she added.

The carcass—now the only known fully intact adult cave bear—was discovered by reindeer herders on the island of Bolshoy Lyakhovsky, which is located in arctic Russia between the Laptev Sea and the East Siberian Sea. Bolshoy Lyakhovsky is the largest of the Lyakhovsky Islands—a part of the New Siberian Islands archipelago.

Cave bears (Ursus spelaeus) went extinct just prior to the end of the last ice age some 15,000 years ago, though possibly as early as 27,800 years ago. Cave bears and modern bears diverged from a common ancestor around 1.2 million to 1.4 million years ago. They were quite large, weighing upwards of 1,540 pounds (700 kg), and were possibly omnivorous.

A preliminary estimate places the age of the newly discovered cave bear at between 22,000 and 39,500 years old. This large window needs to be constrained, and that’ll hopefully be accomplished by a radiocarbon analysis, as senior researcher Maxim Cheprasov from the Mammoth Museum laboratory in Yakutsk explained in the NEFU press release.

The remains will be studied by NEFU researchers in Yakutsk, along with Russian colleagues and international collaborators who will be invited to join the study. Possibilities for research are wide open: isotopic analysis of teeth could point to diet and geographical range; DNA analysis could offer new insights into its evolutionary history and unique genetic traits; and an analysis of its stomach contents could likewise shed light on its diet. It would be good to know, for example, if this beast was an obligate herbivore or an opportunistic omnivore like the modern brown bears it resembles.

In a separate but related discovery, a well-preserved cave bear cub was found on the mainland of Yakutia. Indeed, discoveries from arctic Russia seem to be increasing in frequency as the permafrost melts in Siberia. Recently, ice age lion cubs were found in Yakutsk, and an analysis of their DNA revealed more about the family tree of these extinct creatures.

Ancient cave carving depicts six-legged mantis-man

Researchers have discovered a unique petroglyph, depicting what appears to be a six-legged mantis-man, at the Teymareh rock art site in Iran.

Invertebrates are rarely found in rock carvings, so the archaeologists on the project recruited entomologists to help them determine what kinds of creatures might have inspired the motif. Researchers looked at several six-legged species that prehistoric artists might have come across in central Iran.

The motif measures just 5.5 inches in length, and though it was discovered in 2017, its small size and unusual shape made it difficult to identify. In addition to boasting six legs, the creature features large eyes and enlarged pincher-like forearms.

The entomologists on the study identified an extension on the creature’s head that matches local praying mantis species belonging to the genus Empusa.

Scientists estimate the rock art is between 4,000 and 40,000 years old.

“The petroglyph proves that praying mantids have been astounding and inspiring humans since prehistoric times,” researchers wrote in the Journal of Orthoptera.

The figure isn’t a perfect representation of a Empusa mantis, as the middle limbs feature loops as a hands. Researchers linked the carving with a common petroglyph motif known as “Squatter Man,” which has been found at rock art sites around the world. The motif features a person flanked by circles.

Some researchers suggest the circles represent the atmospheric plasma discharges created by auroras.

The discovery of the latest petroglyph reinforces the theory, based on previous discoveries of half-mantid, half-human figures, that the mantis was a symbol for the supernatural.

“An example includes several prehistoric pictographs in southern Africa representing ‘mantis people’ with half-mantid bodies,” researchers wrote in their paper. “These, and the Iranian mantid petroglyph, bear witness that in prehistory, almost as today, praying mantids were animals of mysticism and appreciation.”