Did you tune in to the brand new cartoon Hungry Bear Tales yet?!

It's super fun and it gives us a great excuse to learn about Brown Bears, who lived in Ireland up until around 3,000 years ago.

Dr Ruth Carden, who is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the School of Archaeology UCD and an Archaeozoologist is here to tell is more.
An archaeozoologist is someone who studies remains of animals from archaeological sites.
That's how she has learned about how brown bears lived in Ireland all those years ago.

When did brown bears live here?

For Ireland, European brown bears had been living here since at least 46,000 years ago, then the Ice Age arrived (Last Glacial Maximum; c.25/26,000 to 17/18,000 years ago) with a large glacier practically covering nearly all of the island of Ireland.

After the glacier retreated at the end of the last Ice Age, before Ireland was an island (about 17-18,000 years ago), brown bears returned and continued to live here until at least around 3,000 years ago.  This era was known as the Bronze Age

We know when brown bears lived in Ireland by examining their bones found in various cave and archaeological deposits and then we perform radiocarbon dating on them, to get the date of when that bone was.

Palaeozoologists or archaeozoologists and zooarchaeologists perform the bone identifications to species, type of skeletal element, record any markings on the bone such as gnawing by other carnivores or butchery marks left by human interventions.

What happened to them?

We aren't exactly sure of why we have no more brown bears dated after the Bronze Age in Ireland - maybe because there were none or likely, not enough bones are identified and dated.

We assume brown bears would have interacted with people living here, and may have been hunted by the people. Perhaps they were a status symbol by they hunter, or brown bears were considered as totem animals - a symbol of power.

Brown bears need caves for hibernation through the winter months, which were harsher in the past than the mild winters we experience in recent years.

They occupied caves in Co. Sligo (Benbullen and Kesh) mountains, as well as in other limestone caves in the country (e.g. counties Clare, Cork, Waterford), most of the bear bones we have including baby bear bones have been found in caves in Ireland.

Habitats would have changed with increasing human populations and distribution throughout Ireland, and this would have affected the natural home ranges of the bears here. They lived in wooded forests, mountains, and lowlands.

So at the moment, we don't know much about why they died out in Ireland. There is no evidence as yet to suggest why. We are still learning results from their identified bones mainly from Irish caves.
Ruth's ongoing research project is the identification and analysis of all mammalian skeletal remains from 11 early excavated Irish caves during the late 1800s to mid 1900s.

A photo of a brown bear skull by Dr Ruth Carden.

What did they eat?

Brown bears eat a mixture of different things. They are omnivores like pigs and humans. They would have eaten fish, presumably they would have fed on the spawning river salmon runs in Spring and Autumn here, catching the fish with their long claws on their paws.

Their home range (the area they roam around) can be as large as 2000km², that's roughly the same size as County Offaly!

They also would have eaten berries such as native black berries found across the countryside in Autumn months. Other plants like grass and shoots, and tree fruits too, reptiles, small mammals, and of course honey!

They would have also probably scavenged killed giant deer and other animals from wolf kills, eating the meat and bone.

They would have stored up fat in autumn months preparing for winter hibernation. So the salmon in Autumn would have been important for that development of fat stores.

Other facts

Adult males weighed around 300kg while the adult female can weigh around 160kg

Cubs are born in the den, while the mother is in hibernation. There are usually two or three siblings and they will weigh around 500g each at birth.

Usually females and cubs are together but have solitary females and males, coming together to mate only in May-July. Cubs will stay with their mother until they are around 2 . 

They can lives up to 25 years in the wild.

Bears walk on all of the foot and claws- plantigrade (causes their waddle when walking), rather than say deer or cows that walk on their toes (unguligrade) covered by keratin (hooves) protective sheath.
The back paw tracks in brown bear are larger than front paws.

Brown bears dig caves in the dirt using their long powerful claws on their paws.

They are one of two largest carnivores in the world alive today - the polar bear is larger!

Brown bears can have brown fur or dark brown almost black or creamy white coloured hair/fur.

Brown bears can run very fast - up to 50km/h, but adults can't climb trees as well as black bears, due to their claws length and overall body size and weights.

Hibernation involves reduction in heart rate and body temperature.