© N. Frotzler
European cave bear: It is thought Neanderthals revered the animal and treated it as a god
The mainly-vegetarian bear is likely to have starved during the Ice Age when its main source of food disappeared. Carbon dating of cave bear bones suggests its extinction almost 30,000 years ago, coincided with major changes in the environment.

Professor Anthony Stuart, a Natural History Museum palaeontologist, and a colleague from the University of Vienna, used new radiocarbon dating of fossil remains from sites across Europe, to accurately establish the timing of the bear's disappearance.

The cave bear (Ursus spelaeus) was found across much of Europe from Spain to the Urals but no further east suggesting it was unsuited to areas of extreme temperatures.

Despite weighing up to 1,000lbs the cave bear, unlike its modern day counterpart which eats fish, was entirely vegetarian and probably ran out of food as the climate cooled and vegetation disappeared.

"The disappearance of the cave bear around 27,500 years ago was probably due to the significant decline in quantity and quality of plant food, which in turn was the result of marked climatic cooling," said Prof Stuart.

Another mammal which vanished in Europe at the same time was the spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta) but other large mammals, or megafauna, such as woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius), giant deer (Megaloceros giganteus) and cave lion (Panthera spelaea) survived for several thousand years more and only became extinct after the glaciers had retreated during the warmer Holocene period.

Hunting by Neanderthals and other early humans, alongside environmental change and disease, may have played a part in their disappearance but there is no evidence to suggest they also hunted the cave bear.

In fact arrangements of cave bear skulls and bones found in caves used by ancient tribes suggest they revered the animal and treated it as a god.

Most bear fossils have been found in the caves which it is named after suggesting that it occupied them permanently rather than simply using them for hibernation.

Professor Stuart added: "Climatic cooling and subsequent decreased vegetation were probably responsible for the disappearance of cave bears from the Alpine region.

"However, we will continue to investigate the possibility that the species may have survived significantly later elsewhere, for example in southern or eastern Europe."

The paper is published in the latest issue of the journal Boreas.