The Cave Bear vs. the Cave Lion - Who Wins?

01
of 01

The Cave Bear vs. the Cave Lion

cave lion cave bear
A Cave Lion attacking a Cave Bear (Shuhei Tamura).

During the late Pleistocene epoch, from about 500,000 to 10,000 years ago, the caves of western Europe were dangerous places to go spelunking. Many of these dark, dank dwellings were occupied by Cave Bears (Ursus spelaeus), and were occasionally raided by hungry Cave Lions (Panthera leo spelaea) in search of food. The question is, who would win a rumble between a pack of ravenous Cave Lions and a den of sleepy, irritated Cave Bears? (See more Dinosaur Death Duels.)

In the Near Corner - Ursus spelaeus, the Cave Bear

Despite its prominence in historical fiction--The Clan of the Cave Bear, anyone?--the Cave Bear (Ursus spelaeus) didn't share its territory with the early humans of late Pleistocene Europe, though it may have been worshiped by them from afar. To date, paleontologists have recovered thousands of Ursus spelaeus fossils from European caves; some of these individuals died of old age, starvation or disease, and others were targeted by predators, the Cave Lion being the most prominent suspect.

Advantages. When it reared up on its hind legs, the Cave Bear was truly terrifying: males of the species were about 10 feet tall and weighed half a ton (females were significantly smaller, "only" about seven feet high and 500 pounds). It also didn't hurt that Ursus spelaeus was equipped with massive, heavy, sharp-clawed paws, a well-aimed swipe from which could render a Cave Lion instantly defunct, or that this megafauna mammal led a reasonably social existence, with numerous individuals of varying ages occupying the same cave.

Disadvantages. The landscape of late Pleistocene Europe was bleak, cold and bitter, especially in deep winter. Like modern bears, Ursus spelaeus had no choice but to hibernate for months at a time, fattening up on its favorite foods (mostly plants, despite what you've seen in the movies) and nestling deep in its cave until spring. The trouble is, a den of hibernating Cave Bears would have been virtually defenseless against roving predators; it's not as if a wide-awake sentry constantly patrolled the cave's entrance.

In the Far Corner - Panthera leo spelaea, the Cave Lion

Ironically, the Cave Lion (Panthera leo spelaea) received its name in reference to the Cave Bear. This big cat didn't actually live in caves; rather, its moniker derives from the fact that Panthera leo spelaea fossils have been discovered mixed in with Cave Bear remains. How did the odd Cave Lion wind up smack in the middle of an Ursus spelaeus den? You've probably already figured out the answer, but feel free to skip down a few paragraphs if you haven't!

Advantages. Although it was only slightly bigger than the biggest species of modern lion--measuring up to eight feet long from head to tail and weighing as much as 700 or 800 pounds--the Cave Lion was more powerfully built, with well-muscled legs and a thick neck. Also, we have direct evidence from contemporary cave paintings that Panthera leo spelaea hunted in packs, which might, conceivably, have terrorized animals as big as a Woolly Mammoth. The Cave Lion would also have been inured to the frigid conditions of Pleistocene Eurasia, unlike its modern big cat cousins that reside in more temperate climates.

Disadvantages. As big and heavy as it was, the Cave Lion wasn't especially fast; for this reason, it was probably an ambush predator, surprising rather than actively chasing down its prey (in this respect, it was extremely similar to the contemporaneous Smilodon, aka the Saber-Toothed Tiger). The biggest weakness of Panthera leo spelaea, though, was the same as that shared by modern lions, pumas and cheetahs: this big cat failed to bring down its prey far more often than it succeeded, and a string of unsuccessful hunts could lead it to the brink of starvation.

Fight!

Let's imagine that it's the dead of winter, and a gaunt, scraggly, starving pride of Cave Lions is tromping across the bleak landscape of northern Europe in search of food. In normal circumstances, Panthera leo spelaea would steer well clear of caves populated by Ursus spelaeus, but since the survival of the pack is at stake, the Cave Lions decide to take the risk. They enter the cave as furtively as they can, one at a time, glimpsing the dark, huddled forms of hibernating Cave Bears lining the walls. Soon they decide on their target: a small (only 300 pounds or so) female set slightly apart from the other occupants of the den. One of the Cave Lions pounces and bites the slumbering female on the neck; unfortunately, his instinctive growl wakes a male Cave Bear sleeping only a few feet away. Groggily at first, but with increasing determination, the alpha bear struggles to its feet; the unaccustomed motion rouses the other bears in the cave, their snouts twitching ominously.

And the Winner Is...

Who can pick out individual winners and losers in the middle of such a bloodbath? Realizing they've made a huge mistake, the marauding Cave Lions attempt to drag the dead female Cave Bear out into the snow. Their way is blocked, though, by two very large Ursus spelaeus males, who literally block the dim sunlight with their imposing torsos. One of the males whacks a Cave Lion in the head with its massive forepaw, rendering the intruder unconscious, while the other attempts to lift a second Panthera leo spelaea and give it the mother of all bear hugs--but he's waylaid by a third Cave Lion that leaps onto his back, causing the entire grunting, snarling mass of bears and lions to tumble to the ground in a big heap. The final score: two dead Cave Bears, two dead Cave Lions, and one lucky Panthera leo spelaea who manages to crawl away from the scene of battle, dragging the severed but nutritious leg of one if its shaggy adversaries.