QUADRAT DTP: Reconstructing the spatial ecology of cave bears: integrating geochemical, biomolecular and microwear analysis to explore the relationship between range size, sex and dietary ecology in extinct and ancestral European Late Pleistocene Ursidae

   School of Geosciences

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  Prof Kate Britton, Dr M Blaauw  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

This fully funded, 42-month PhD project is part of the QUADRAT Doctoral Training Partnership.

Although Late Pleistocene bears (especially cave bears) have the focus of a considerable body of research, the spatial ecology of these Late Pleistocene Ursids has received little attention. Cave bears are often considered to be local to the sites at which they are found in the archaeological and palaeontological record and are not considered to be particularly mobile. Instead, they are commonly presumed to have mitigated seasonal variations in food supply through hibernation. However, there have been few studies that have addressed cave bear range size and mobility using direct methods, and no studies exploring the relationship between the dietary and spatial ecology of this extinct taxa (or other Late Pleistocene Ursids). Significantly, modern Ursids can have considerable space needs, which vary with climatic variables and food availability. The range size of modern brown bears (U. arctos), for example, is much higher in arctic in sub-arctic regions than in temperate zones and sex-based differences have also been observed, with males tending to cover larger areas than females (Joly et al. 2022). Better understanding the deeper-time relationship between sex, range size, environment, and dietary niche amongst extinct and extant Ursidae has potential to inform modern bear ecology and conservation.

Using state-of-the-art intra-tooth laser ablation strontium isotope analysis (Le Corre et al. 2023), and targeting the preserved remains of cave bears (and brown bears) from selected Late Pleistocene European sites, this project will undertake the first targeted investigation of cave bear spatial ecology. Strontium data will be integrated with other proxy isotope data (sulphur, oxygen) and compared to baseline ‘isoscapes’ in order to reconstruct the range sizes of these different species and explore inter-species differences. Radiocarbon dating and comparison to site-based chronological and environmental records will be employed to explore any temporal trends during the last glacial period (MIS 4 to MIS 2). Mobility/range size indicators will be combined with evidence for the dietary ecology of the specimens, including carbon and nitrogen isotope analysis and dental microwear analysis (Pappa et al. 2019), in combination with sexing data (via proteomics), to allow the exploration of any relationship between ranging behaviours, sex and dietary ecology.

 The supervisory team have significant experience of Pleistocene zooarchaeology/palaeontology, working with isotopic datasets from diverse Late Pleistocene faunal species and modelling palaeoecological data. Prof. Britton’s research spans the Eemian to the post-medieval period, focusing on the interactions between humans, animals and the environment, and the use of isotope zooarchaeology in better understanding both faunal palaeoecology and past environments. Dr Maarten Blaauw brings specialisms in chronology-building and working with diverse palaeoecological datasets, and Dr Edouard Masson-MacLean brings specialist knowledge in zooarchaeology. Additional expertise is brought by Prof. Hannah O’Regan (an expert in the zooarchaeology of bears) and by quaternary scientist Prof. Danielle Schreve who is a specialist in Late Pleistocene mammalian fauna and will offer training and guidance in microwear analysis. Prof. Vaughan Grimes is an archaeological scientist and geochemistry specialist who will facilitate specialist training in laser ablation ICP-MS.

Candidate Background:

The successful applicant should have a background in biological or environmental sciences; (Pleistocene) archaeology; or geochemistry. Interest in vertebrate palaeoecology is essential. 

Candidates should have, or expect to achieve, a minimum of a 2.1 Honours degree (or equivalent) in a relevant subject. Applicants with a minimum of a 2.2 Honours degree may be considered providing they have a Distinction at Masters level.

We encourage applications from all backgrounds and communities, and are committed to having a diverse, inclusive team.

Informal enquiries are encouraged, please contact Professor Kate Britton ([Email Address Removed]) for further information.



  • Please visit this page for full application information: How To Apply – QUADRAT
  • Please send your completed application form, along with academic transcripts to [Email Address Removed]
  • Please ensure that two written references from your referees are submitted. It is your responsibility to ensure these are provided, as we will not request references on your behalf.
  • Unfortunately, due to workload constraints, we cannot consider incomplete applications.
  • CV's submitted directly through a FindAPhD enquiry WILL NOT be considered.
  • If you require any additional assistance in submitting your application or have any queries about the application process, please don't hesitate to contact us at [Email Address Removed]
Biological Sciences (4) Forensic and Archaeological Sciences (16) Geology (18) History & Archaeology (19)

Funding Notes

This opportunity is open to UK and International students (The proportion of international students appointed through the QUADRAT DTP is capped at 30% by UKRI NERC).
Funding covers:
• A monthly stipend for accommodation and living costs, based on UKRI rates (£18,622 for the 23/24 academic year. Stipend rates for the 24/25 academic year have not been set yet)
• Tuition Fees
• Research and training costs
QUADRAT DTP does not provide funding to cover visa and associated healthcare surcharges for international students.


• Joly, K., M. D. Cameron, M. S. Sorum, D. D. Gustine, W. Deacy and G. V. Hilderbrand (2022). "Factors influencing Arctic brown bear annual home range sizes and limitations of home range analyses." Ursus 2022(33e11): 1-12, 12.
• Le Corre, M., V. Grimes, R. Lam and K. Britton (2023). "Comparison between strip sampling and laser ablation methods to infer seasonal movements from intra-tooth strontium isotopes profiles in migratory caribou." Scientific Reports 13(1): 3621.
• Pappa, S., D. C. Schreve and F. Rivals (2019). "The bear necessities: A new dental microwear database for the interpretation of palaeodiet in fossil Ursidae." Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 514: 168-188.

Where will I study?

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