- Research article
- Open Access
The effect of body size evolution and ecology on encephalization in cave bears and extant relatives
© The Author(s). 2017
- Received: 4 January 2017
- Accepted: 22 May 2017
- Published: 5 June 2017
The evolution of larger brain volumes relative to body size in Mammalia is the subject of an extensive amount of research. Early on palaeontologists were interested in the brain of cave bears, Ursus spelaeus, and described its morphology and size. However, until now, it was not possible to compare the absolute or relative brain size in a phylogenetic context due to the lack of an established phylogeny, comparative material, and phylogenetic comparative methods. In recent years, many tools for comparing traits within phylogenies were developed and the phylogenetic position of cave bears was resolved based on nuclear as well as mtDNA.
Cave bears exhibit significantly lower encephalization compared to their contemporary relatives and intraspecific brain mass variation remained rather small. Encephalization was correlated with the combined dormancy-diet score. Body size evolution was a main driver in the degree of encephalization in cave bears as it increased in a much higher pace than brain size. In Ursus spelaeus, brain and body size increase over time albeit differently paced. This rate pattern is different in the highest encephalized bear species within the dataset, Ursus malayanus. The brain size in this species increased while body size heavily decreased compared to its ancestral stage.
Early on in the evolution of cave bears encephalization decreased making it one of the least encephalized bear species compared to extant and extinct members of Ursidae. The results give reason to suspect that as herbivorous animals, cave bears might have exhibited a physiological buffer strategy to survive the strong seasonality of their environment. Thus, brain size was probably affected by the negative trade-off with adipose tissue as well as diet. The decrease of relative brain size in the herbivorous Ursus spelaeus is the result of a considerable increase in body size possibly in combination with environmental conditions forcing them to rest during winters.
- Physiological buffer
Cave bears, Ursus spelaeus, were a common faunal element during the Pleistocene of Europe and Asia . The habitat of U. spelaeus was Eurasia with an east-west extension ranging from Spain to the Altai Region of Russia [1–3]. The ancestral species of U. spelaeus, U. deningeri, was even more widespread, with a habitat ranging from Spain to Siberia and even reaching the British Isles [1, 3–5]. At the end of the Pleistocene, cave bears shared the same fate as most other elements of the Pleistocene megafauna and became extinct [6–8]. Their time of extinction was proposed to be around 27.800–25.000 years BP [9, 10]. Based on molecular data, the sister group to cave bears are brown bears, U. arctos, and polar bears, U. maritimus, together (Fig. 2). The evolutionary lineage of U. spelaeus split from these two bear species sometime between 2.75 to 1.2 Ma years ago [11–13]. Traditionally, cave bears were considered to be predominantly or exclusively herbivorous based on the morphology of their teeth and jaws [1, 14–18]. Several studies presented isotopic as well as morphometric evidence confirming this hypothesis [2, 19–25]. However, the predominantly herbivorous diet of cave bears was questioned based on isotopic [26, 27], morphometric [28, 29], microwear [30, 31], and taphonomic evidence . In recent years, many of these studies were dismissed based on methodological errors or repeated with the result that cave bears were indeed herbivorous [2, 19, 20, 33].
Cave bear brains are among the earliest ones of an extinct species to be investigated and several studies discuss different aspects of its evolution [34–42]. Many of these studies focus on the external morphology of artificial, fossil, or virtual endocasts [34, 35, 39–41]. Conflicting statements were presented concerning the overall size of the cave bear brain. Some authors suggested a small brain size compared to body size and speculated that the increase of skull size in the evolution of U. spelaeus outpaced brain size [35, 36]. Others suggested high brain volumes for cave bears and an opposite scenario with brain size outpacing body size [37, 38, 42]. Many factors affect the size of brains. Brain tissue itself is known to be expensive to produce and maintain [43–45]. Absolute as well as relative brain size can be influenced by social structure [46–48], environment [48–52], sensory systems , evolutionary history [54–57], body size evolution , and different physiological as well as life history trade-offs [43, 52, 57–66].
Diet can have a profound effect on brain size as was exemplified in bats and primates . Recently, it was even suggested that diet had a bigger effect on brain size than sociality in primates . The diet of bears is diverse with varying amounts of plant and animal matter within and among species . It ranges from hypercarnivorous in polar bears, U. maritimus, to folivorous in giant pandas, Ailuropoda melanoleuca [2, 69]. Thus, diet of bears might exhibit a link to brain size.
Some bear species survive the cold seasons with extended resting periods, whereas especially tropical species are active year-round . Resting periods in bears are different from deep hibernation as movement still can occur . Thus, these periods are better described as dormancy in bears. Previous to dormancy, bears increase the amount of stored body fat . The storage of high amounts of adipose tissue was linked to a decreased brain size . Bears represent a good study object to investigate the effect of dormancy on brain size because some species are active year round whereas others increase the amount of adipose tissue annually .
In this study, I investigate the absolute and relative brain size of U. spelaeus and all extant bear species in a phylogenetic context and add remarks on U. deningeri. For this, I created a comprehensive brain size dataset for all extant bear species and cave bears. Additionally, I examine potential variables which could introduce energetic constraints affecting brain size evolution such as dormancy, diet, and body size. These variables were chosen because they can be reconstructed for cave bears with some measure of certainty.
Results of body mass (g) and brain mass (g) estimates as well as residuals and investigated ecological scores
average body mass (g)
StD body mass (g)
average body mass literature (g)
average brain mass (g)
StD brainmass (g)
StD average residuals
The materials examined in this study are from the following collections: Biologiezentrum Linz (BZL), Geology School of Aristotle University Thessaloniki (AUTH), Institut für Paläontologie Wien (PIUW), Naturalis Biodiversity Center Leiden (NBC), Naturhistorisches Museum der Burgergemeinde Bern (NMBE). Naturhistorisches Museum Wien (NHM), Naturmuseum St. Gallen (NMSG), Naturmuseum Südtirol Bozen (PZO), Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle Paris (MNHN), Museum für Naturkunde Berlin (MfN), Paleontological Institute and Museum University of Zurich (PIMUZ), and Zoological Museum University of Zurich (ZMUZH).
The phylogenetic relationships among Ursidae is not completely understood as there are clear discrepancies between trees based on nuclear and mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), mirroring a complex evolutionary history with introgression and incomplete lineage sorting . Complete phylogenies of Ursidae including cave bears are based on mtDNA [11, 12], therefore, I use mtDNA topology as basis for the phylogenetic analyses. The relationship between cave bears and brown bear as well as polar bear was also confirmed by nuclear DNA . Recently, several new, former unrecognized species and subspecies of U. spelaeus were described based on morphological and genetic data [3, 80–83]. However, some of these taxa are polyphyletic [84, 85]. Here, I include all these proposed cave bear species and subspecies in U. spelaeus, but exclude the well-established ancestral species U. deningeri . U. deningeri is considered an anagenetic ancestor to U. spelaeus [1, 80] and thus was excluded from all analyses as it would either represent a duplication or cannot be properly placed in phylogeny. Branch lengths for phylogenetically informed analyses were retrieved from Nyakatura and Bininda-Emonds  and Bon .
Due to uneven sampling and small sample sizes in species-averaged datasets, I use non-parametric analyses. A Kruskal-Wallis test followed by a Dunn’s test with Bonferroni adjustment was used on the resulting residuals to test for significant differences. This was performed in R, version 3.2.3 , using the packages pgirmess and PMCMR [87, 88]. The subset of different brain volume estimations was analysed using a Wilcoxon signed-rank test for paired samples in R, version 3.2.3. . Boxplots were created in the package ggplot2 .
I used squared-change parsimony  to reconstruct ancestral stages for log 10 average body mass (g), log 10 average brain mass (g), and averaged residuals respectively. This analysis follows a Brownian motion model of evolution . The resulting ancestral character states were then used to investigate the relative mass change (in percent) from one node to the following within the tree. These analyses were performed for each variable separately in Mesquite software (version 3.01) .
The scoring enables to multiply both scores to one under the assumption that unidirectional or opposing trends show a combined effect on brain size. This is possible because the array of possible variables is constrained among three states. I performed the Kendall’s tau correlation analysis in R, version 3.2.3, using the package Kendall .
The resulting averaged reconstructed body mass (g) and brain mass (g) with standard deviation as well as the ecological scores are given in Table 1.
Results of the pairwise comparisons of slopes and intercepts among different bear species
Results of the Kruskal-Wallis rank sum test on the residuals of investigated bear species
Kruskal-Wallis rank sum test
K-W chi-squared: 338.89 df: 8, p-value: <0.0001
The biggest documented cave bear brain volume is 1.8 times bigger than the smallest. In comparison, in U. arctos it is 2.6 times bigger and in U. thibetanus 2.2 times. Polar bears, however, exhibit low variation with the biggest brain volume being 1.6 times bigger than the smallest (Table 1).
The ancestral stage reconstruction based on squared-change parsimony revealed that the small relative brain size of U. spelaeus and U. ursinus represent a secondarily derived condition, as their respective ancestral stages exhibit a higher relative brain size (Fig. 2, Additional file 5: Table S4). The comparison between the relative change of body mass (g) and brain mass (g) shows that the evolution of a bigger body size in U. spelaeus outpaced brain size evolution. Both increased size compared to their ancestral stages, respectively; however, body size increased at a much higher pace. The reverse was found in U. maritimus, in which brain size evolution outpaced body size increase. Nonetheless, in U. maritimus and U. spelaeus brain as well as body size evolution are unidirectional towards increasing. In U. americanus the trend is unidirectional towards decrease. These cases contrast with the decoupling trend recorded for U. malayanus. In this species, the body size decreases where the brain size increases leading to the high relative brain size found in this species. At the basis of the tree, the analysis retrieved an ancestral body mass of 112,052 g and a brain mass of 277 g.
Results of Kendall’s tau on different scores as well as the combination of both
Diet score (d)
Dormancy score (d)
Average brain mass (g)
Encephalization in Ursidae
U. spelaeus had a significantly smaller relative brain size than most extant bear species. The brain size variation in cave bears over time, between males and females  as well as high altitude and lowland populations  did not exceed the intraspecific variation in extant U. americanus, U. arctos, U. malayanus, and U. thibetanus. Especially, the relative brain size of U. arctos and U. thibetanus exhibits a considerable amount of variation. The study of brain size evolution often focuses on the evolution of increased encephalization and intelligence [38, 94–99]. Animals with bigger relative brain size often show more flexibility in behaviour and are potentially more adaptable [100–104]. Nonetheless, brain tissue is expensive and producing it comes at the cost of a slower life history [43–45, 57, 64, 105]. Therefore, in some species a secondary reduction of relative or absolute brain size was described . Especially, islands represent a challenging habitat for many mammals and several species exhibit a secondary decrease in encephalization [107, 108]. Dormancy and diet, separately, were not correlated with brain size; however, the combination of both variables showed a significant effect. A possible explanation for this correlation could be that cave bears underwent a change in diet in a habitat in which they were still forced to rest during winters [1, 9] limiting the possibility of so called cognitive buffering [66, 109]. Under the Cognitive Buffer hypothesis, it is expected that relative brain size of mammals in highly seasonal environment increases due to the necessity of behavioural flexibility. This, however, also implies an active reaction towards the environmental change. In contrast, dormancy does not require this high level of behavioural flexibility but relies on body fat storage, which additionally has a negative trade-off with brain size [60, 66]. This suggests that brain size in cave bears might exhibit a physiological buffering effect  partly constraining relative brain size. Other bear species such as U. arctos and U. americanus would also exhibit this physiological buffering effect but their food quality or life history might lessen the constraint on relative brain size.
In Ursidae, three life history variables have been demonstrated to correlate with encephalization: gestation time (negative), newborn mass (positive), and litter size (negative) . In A. melanoleuca, a combination of these variable with a year-round active strategy  is potentially the reason why the second herbivorous species in the dataset exhibits an encephalization higher than found in cave bears. Nonetheless, the life history correlates with encephalization are not unidirectional in the giant panda. In contrast, the highest encephalized species, U. malayanus, shows unidirectional trends towards increased encephalization in most variables with heavy newborns, small litter size, non-resting strategy, and 68% faunivory [2, 69, 110]. Gestation time and litter size are not known for U. spelaeus. However, cave bears were about the same size as U. arctos at birth [14, 111], contributing to its small relative brain size. A small relative brain size can already be traced in U. deningeri. This ancestor of U. spelaeus also exhibits low encephalization and is usually considered a herbivorous species with winter resting behaviour as well [25, 112].
The effect of diet alone on brain size in Ursidae remains elusive. In other groups such as primates and bats the link is more apparent. Fruit, blood, and meat eating bats tend to be more encephalized than their insect-eating relatives and in primates leaf-eaters are the least encephalized [67, 68]. Although a comparable link was proposed for Carnivora, it is hypothesized to be more associated with the process of acquiring food rather than the energetics of the diet itself [54, 67]. The change in diet in cave bears and associated smaller relative brain size is reminiscent of the often mentioned evolutionary arms-race between Carnivora and Ungulates in which Carnivora had to be more encephalized to outsmart their (herbivorous) prey . This scenario, however, was later found to be unsubstantiated .
Smaers et al.  suggested that absolute brain size in the evolution of U. spelaeus was outpacing body size. This pattern was based on brain size estimates obtained by external measurements [37, 38, 74]. Although external measurements can predict brain volume with a certain confidence [74, 114], they can also have considerable prediction error . The results of this study show that external measurements overestimate the endocranial volume of U. spelaeus (Fig. 3). The reason for this might be the frontal bossing found in cave bears likely caused by an extension of the frontal sinuses [16, 17, 35, 36, 41]. My results show that in cave bears body size evolution outpaced brain size evolution. Thus attesting to a remark by Marinelli . Smaers et al.  also published brain and body size variables for three other extinct bear species Arctodus simus (3 Ma – 0.01 Ma), Cephalogale ursinus (23.8 Ma – 22.8 Ma), and Indarctos oregonensis (10.3 Ma – 5.3 Ma). With these values C. ursinus would be placed high above the regression line (residual: 0.33), A. simus close to the line (residual: 0.04), and I. oregonensis below the line (residual: −0.16). Fossil evidence has shown to change the results of suggested bidirectional evolution in brain size [99, 106]. However, in ursids, the cave bear lineage represents one of the least encephalized compared to extant and most extinct relatives.
On the methodology of body mass reconstruction
I calculated the mass of every specimen individually based on skull length . My body mass estimates, generally, were well within the range of known body mass distribution for each species (Table 1) . However, the estimations for polar bears, U. maritimus, are generally small. Thus, this animal might be closer to the range of other bear species such as U. arctos in the scatterplot (Fig. 1). It is, nonetheless, possible that the measured skulls are from individuals from the lower range of mass distribution of this species. The opposite is true for the two smaller bear species U. malayanus and U. ursinus. U. malayanus potentially could have even bigger brains compared to body size than in the presented dataset. U. ursinus would be within the range of other extant bear species in the scatterplot (Fig. 1) such as U. arctos. U. spelaeus is considered to be one of the biggest carnivorans , with some estimates suggesting it to have surpassed the size of the polar bear or the Kodiak brown bear, U. a. middendorffi, by reaching a body mass of about 1′500 kg . Based on this, the cave bear could have had an exceptionally small relative brain size. Considering the possible bias body mass estimations based on skull length had on the dataset, encephalization in Ursidae could be more even with two strong outliers, U. malayanus towards increased encephalization and U. spelaeus towards decreased one.
The aim of this study was to examine the encephalization in cave bears and comparing it with living and extinct members of Ursidae. U. spelaeus, and subsequently all potential species associated with this taxon, exhibit one of the lowest encephalization in Ursidae because body size increase outpaced brain size increase in its evolution. This is a trend observable early on in the cave bear lineage as is evidenced by the low encephalization of U. deningeri. My results stand in contrast to previous interpretations of cave bear brain evolution . I showed that this study has used overestimated brain volumes due to the shape of cave bear skulls. Bear species, which do not exhibit dormancy and have a high caloric diet, showed a weak but significant correlation with bigger relative brain size. This would be in accordance with the trait-off between brain size and adipose tissue as well as studies on diet and brain size [60, 66–68]. The ecological shift towards a plant based diet alone did not affect encephalization in cave bears. However, a more general link associated with food acquirement strategy might still exist . The herbivorous U. spelaeus has a small relative brain size possibly due to the combined effect of unequal body/brain size evolution and a seasonal environment in which dormancy was necessary for survival.
This paper is part of a doctoral thesis at the University of Zurich supervised by Marcelo R. Sánchez-Villagra, Evolutionary Morphology and Palaeobiology of Vertebrates (PIMUZ). I want to acknowledge the many institutions and people giving us access to their collections. Thus, I want to thank Björn Berning (BZL), Toni Bürgin (NMSG), Stephanie Fassl (PIUW), Christine Frischauf (PIUW), Christiane Funk (MfN), Ursula B. Göhlich (NHM), Marianne Haffner (ZMUZH), Oliver Hampe (MfN), Lars van den Hoek Ostende (NBC), Evelyn Kustatscher (PZO), Marc Nussbaumer (NMBE), Barbara Oberholzer (ZMUZH), Natasja den Ouden (NBC), Gernot Rabeder (PIUW), Thomas Schossleitner (MfN), Martin Studeny (BZL), Evangelia Tsoukala (AUTH), Géraldine Veron (MNHN) for their support. Additionally, I am grateful to Karin Isler (AIMZH) for fruitful discussions on methodology and design of this study and Marcelo R. Sánchez-Villagra (PIMUZ) for discussions and editions to the text. I also want to thank Vera Weisbecker (UQ) and two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments, which considerably improved this study. Funding for this research was provided by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNF) grant no. 31003A-149605 to Marcelo R. Sánchez-Villagra.
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