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Female Cantabrian brown bear with cubs. With kind permission of Fapas (Conservation NGO - Foundation for the Protection of Wild Animals)

The Cantabrian brown bears are a group of Eurasian brown bears (Ursus actos arctos) living in the Cantabrian Mountains of Spain. Females weigh, on average, 85kg but can reach a weight of 150kg. Males average 115kg though can weigh as much as 200kg. The bear measures between 1.6 – 2m in length and between 0.90 -1m at shoulder height. In Spain, it is known as the Oso pardo cantábrico and, more locally, in Asturias as Osu. It is timid and will avoid human contact whenever possible. The Cantabrian brown bear can live for around 25-30 years in the wild.



Believed to have originated in Asia, the Brown bear (Ursus arctos, L. 1758) spread across the Northern hemisphere, colonising much of the Eurasian land mass as well as North America. Ursidae experts are continuing debate on the scientific classification of bears, of which there are currently eight recognised species although some experts recognise more subspecies. In the early 20th century, Cabrera (1914) considered the Cantabrian brown bear to be a distinct subspecies of European brown bear, Ursus arctos arctos, (in itself a classification currently under debate) and named it Ursus arctos pyrenaicus (Fischer, 1829), characterised by the yellow colouring of the points of its hair and by its black paws. Since then however, phylogenetic and mitochondrial DNA research has led to the general scientific consensus that the European brown bear is not a separate subspecies. These recent studies have also found that the European populations fall into two major genetic lineages; an Eastern and a Western type. [1] The Cantabrian brown bear forms a part of the Western type, the effective barriers of the Pleistocene ice sheets of the Alps and the Balkans having directed the spread of the brown bear respectively, north and eastwards and south and westwards. A further distinction of two clades has been made within the Western lineage following post-glacial recolonisation after the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM); one consisting of the bear populations of Southern Scandinavia, the Pyrenees and Cantabrian Mountains of Northern Spain and the other consisting of the bear populations of the Southern Alps, the Appennines, the Dinaric Alps, the Rila Mountains, the Rhodope Mountains and the Stara Planina mountains. [2] This leaves the remnant population of Brown bears in the south of Sweden as the nearest relatives of the Cantabrian brown bear. The last indigenous, reproductive female in the Pyrenees, Canelle, was shot by a hunter in 2004. Brown bears from Slovenia are now being introduced to the Pyrenees.

Geographic distribution

Having once roamed most of the Iberian peninsula, since the first half of the 20th century the Cantabrian brown bear has been split into two isolated, remaining populations in the Cantabrian mountains of Northern Spain, primarily through human persecution of direct hunting and by loss of habitat due to agriculture and construction. These two populations occupy a combined territory total of between 5,000 – 7,000km2 covering the provinces of, in the West, Asturias, León and Lugo (Galicia) and, in the East, Palencia, León, Cantabria and Asturias, and are separated by some 30-40km. Latest population figures (2007) give between 100-110 bears in the Western enclave and between 20-30 in the Eastern. There are recent reports (2005) about the presence of brown bears near the Portuguese border (less than 20km) on Sanabria ( Trevinca) based on footprints left on a big mud pad. It is very plausible that brown bears, nowadays, cross the border on some occasions. The Western population is probably more numerous than thought.

Mapa fop.jpg

Protection status

The Cantabrian brown bear is catalogued on the Spanish Red List of Endangered Species as In Danger of Extinction. In Europe it is listed in the European Mammal Assessment as Critically Endangered. On an international level, it is listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as of Least Concern due to the existence of relatively healthy populations of Brown bears elsewhere. In Spain there is a maximum fine of €300,000 for killing a bear following a ban on hunting of the species in 1973.


In the smaller Eastern population, endogamy has led to genetic complications including the higher probability of birth defects and a higher ratio of male to female births (more males than females). Added to this is the extreme philopatry usually exhibited by female Brown bears which leads to a very slow dispersal rate of reproductive females.

Another present threat comes in the form of the EU’s Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) laws which are enforcing the removal of carcasses from the countryside. [3] Though only a small part of the Cantabrian brown bear’s mainly vegetarian diet, carrion is very important for the building of fat reserves ready for the winter and, in spring, is a vital source of sustenance following the rigours of the winter. It is hoped that these disease containment measures will be revised following a meeting of concerned Spanish environmentalists with the European Commission in October 2007.

Cantabrian mountains, habitat of Cantabrian brown bear

Man-made infrastructures such as roads and railways further inhibit the population growth of the Cantabrian brown bear. The most recent human threat is a proposed project to build a ski/winter leisure resort in the San Glorio pass region of their habitat. Recent mild winters, possibly due to climate change, have not been severe enough to necessitate hibernation. Despite the fact that Spain’s ministry of the environment, in its Catálogo Nacional de Especies Amenazadas [4] lists the brown bear as in danger of extinction in Spain, and the existence of heavy fines aimed at protecting the few remaining bears, the fact is hardly a year passes without yet another bear having been killed by human intervention. According to an article published December 2007 in the Spanish national daily El País,[5] eight brown bears had been killed, either by poisoned bait or illegal hunting, in the Cantabrian Mountains since the year 2000.


An "Action Plan for the Conservation of the Brown Bear (Ursus arctos) in Europe", by Jon E. Swenson, Norbert Gerstl, Bjørn Dahle, Andreas Zedrosser, was published in 2000. The Spanish Ministry of the Environment had previously drawn up a "Plan para la Recuperación del Oso Pardo" (Plan for the Recovery of the Cantabrian brown bear) with the intention of coordinating conservation efforts to save the species from extinction in the autonomous communities in which it currently lives.

Apart from continuing scientific research, conservation efforts currently centre on joining the two sub-populations of Spanish bears in order to create a viable population. Conservation groups are working to preserve centuries-old corridors of communication used by the bears and are planting fruit trees and siting beehives to supplement their diet. Also, UNESCO's proposed integration of existing biosphere reserves within a Gran Cantábrica super-reserve is intended to help the bears expand their range, for example, to the west.

Example of automatic photographic monitoring of the Cantabrian brown bear. With kind permission of Fapas

A project of photo "trapping" is enjoying success and another of radio-tracking individuals is being considered. Bear habitat is monitored by patrols and education programmes are underway, particularly among the young but also among hunting groups.

See also


  1. ^ - Mitochondrial DNA Polymorphism, Phylogeography, and Conservation Genetics of the Brown Bear Ursus arctos in Europe. Taberlet P., Bouvet J. (1994)
  2. ^ European Brown Bear Compendium, John D.C. Linnell, Daniel Steuer, John Odden, Petra Kaczensky and Jon E. Swenson (2002)
  3. ^ Council of the European Union
  4. ^ Ministerio de Medio Ambiente:Biodiversity:Conservation of Endangered Species:National Catalogue of Endangered Species
  5. ^ Denuncian la muerte de un segundo oso en Palencia en cuatro meses · ELPAÍ

External links



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