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Mol Ecol. 2009 Mar;18(6):1225-38. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-294X.2009.04088.x. Epub 2008 Jan 11.

First DNA sequences from Asian cave bear fossils reveal deep divergences and complex phylogeographic patterns.

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1
Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, Germany.

Abstract

Until recently, cave bears were believed to have only inhabited Europe. However, recent morphological evidence suggests that cave bears' geographic range extended as far east as Transbaikalia, Eastern Siberia. These Asian cave bears were morphologically distinct from European cave bears. However, how they related to European lineages remains unclear, stressing the need to assess the phylogenetic and phylogeographic relationship between Asian cave bears and their European relatives. In this work, we address this issue using a 227 base-pair fragment of the mitochondrial control region obtained from nine fossil bone samples from eight sites from the Urals, Caucasus, Altai Mountains, Ukraine and Yana River region in Eastern Siberia. Results of the phylogenetic analyses indicate that (i) the cave bear from the Yana River is most closely related to cave bears from the Caucasus region; (ii) the Caucasus/Yana group of bears is genetically very distinct from both European cave bears and brown bears, suggesting that these bears could represent an independent species; and (iii) the Western European cave bear lineage reached at least temporarily to the Altai Mountains, 7000 km east of their known centre of distribution. These results suggest that the diversity of cave bears was greater than previously believed, and that they could survive in a much wider range of ecological conditions than previously assumed. They also agree with recent studies on other extinct and extant species, such as wolves, hyenas and steppe bison, which have also revealed higher genetic and ecological diversity in Pleistocene populations than previously known.

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