Station: [46] Cave-Dwelling Animals

Perhaps that’s what a cave bear sounded like – specifically, the one that lived in the Franconian caves more than 40,000 years ago.

It was a contemporary of the Neanderthals and significantly larger than today’s brown bear. At the end of the last Ice Age, this prehistoric bear disappeared. But bones and skeletal remains have survived in the caves. We’ve assembled this adult bear from the remains of several individual animals. In the display case behind it are the bones of a bear cub that must have died immediately after birth. It was no bigger than the small black bear you can see between the paws of the full-size skeleton.

In fact, caves are also habitats and very special biotopes. First, we need to distinguish between three scenarios. Some animals find their way into caves by chance, such as toads and salamanders. Others deliberately seek out caves, in order to hibernate for instance. In prehistoric times, that included the cave bear. Today, it applies to some species of spider as well as butterflies and bats. And finally, there are animals that spend their entire lives underground. Given the absence of sunlight as an energy source, and hence the lack of vegetation, many life forms in caves specialise in utilising entrained material –that is material that has entered the cave from the outside.

Many caves have developed unique food chains. Numerous genera are represented: from single-cell organisms, worms and primordial insects, via crustaceans and beetles, all the way to vertebrates such as fish and an aquatic salamander called an olm. Because of their subterranean way of life, contact between populations is severely hampered; so many localised species have evolved. Sometimes these are only present in a single cave – so they’re what are known as endemic species.

However, there is much less biodiversity here in Central and Northern Europe than in the Mediterranean – a consequence of the deep ground frost during the Ice Ages.