Brown bears, (ursus arctos), are thought to have originated in Asia before spreading east into the Americas and west and south into Europe and north Africa. All brown bears are also grizzly bears. This is because of the greyish hairs, (grizzle), that many of them have around there shoulders and not because of having a fearsome nature, as most people believe. The African population was hunted to extinction in the 19th century, the British population in the 11th century. Bears once roamed throughout the Iberian peninsula but by the early 20th century, were reduced to two remnant populations, one in the Cantabrian mountains and the other in the Pyrenees. They are listed as an “endangered species”. One of the unusual things about these remaining animals is that they share a genetic inheritance – not so much with their Balkan and Alpine cousins – but with bears from Scandinavia suggesting that in prehistoric times they must have spread west across northern Europe instead of coming west from southern and eastern Europe. The last indigenous, reproductive female in the Pyrenees, was killed in 2004. Brown bears from Slovenia are now being introduced there.
There are now two isolated populations in the Cantabrian mountains of Northern Spain spanning the provinces of Galicia, Asturias, Leon, Palencia and Cantabria. The populations are separated by the unfortunate coexistence of a river, a railway, and the A66 motorway. It is thought that a very limited mixing has now taken place and there are plans to establish wildlife corridors to more readily link the two populations together. According to the latest figures, the eastern population contains about 60 animals and the western about 140. In these small populations there is a significant risk of birth defects due to the small size of the gene pool.
Cantabrian brown bears have survived only in the least accessible and mountainous regions of Spain and, although it is likely that in prehistoric times they would have eaten a lot of salmon, seafood and game, (just like bears in other parts of the world do), these days they exist mainly on a vegetarian diet supplemented by insects, worms and occasional carrion. Being omnivores they can adapt quite readily but can only survive in unspoilt areas where a wide variety of wild foodstuffs are available. Their relatively recent change in diet probably accounts for them being significantly smaller than other brown bears. The American Grizzly bear is the same same species but grows twice as big. Bear numbers are now on the rise thanks to extensive conservation efforts although it remains to be seen what impact recent economic troubles and austerity measures may have in the near future.