Bone discoveries
in the Wildkirchli

As early as the mid-19th century, bones from cave bears, chamoises, and ibexes were documented in the Wildkirchli. The first systematic excavation led by Emil Baechler was thus also concerned with searching for cave bear bones.

Individual animal bones behave differently with regard to sedimentary pressure and moisture. Ribs, shoulder blades, and hip bones are seldom found fully preserved. Toe, finger and wrist bones are often well preserved, in addition to kneecaps and oft-discovered teeth.

In the Wildkirchli cave, bones from around 600 to 800 cave bears have been found, from a period of around 100, 000 years ago.

In a vastly smaller number, but as such all the more surprisingly, bones from the cave lion, leopard, and cave hyena have also been discovered. This means that bones from a cave lion are still lying in the earth.

Cave Bear

Body length 200 – 300 cm (6.5-10 ft)
Shoulder height 100 – 150 cm (3-5 ft)
Weight 600 – 1000 kg (1300-2200 lb)
Life expectancy 35 years
Diet Herbivore
Lifestyle Solitary

The massive cave bear is an extinct relative of the brown bear and a good 30 percent larger. Its most striking feature was a high brow, which was linked to its powerful jaw muscles.

It was herbivorous and had widely spread back teeth, with which it could chew its hard, fiber-dense diet. As it had no natural predators, a single animal could live up to 35 years.

Despite the plentiful accumulation of bones and teeth in caves, cave bears did not live inside them. The animals only stayed there during their winter hibernation, and so the occasional death of a weakened or old animal over the course of ten thousand years led to the large collection of bones and teeth.

Why the cave bear went extinct around 25, 000 years ago is not entirely clear. Perhaps climate change was to blame?

Despite the cave bear being a good thirty percent bigger than the brown bear, they still had the same “shoe size.”

This surely had something to do with the economy of heat in the Ice Age: The extent to which an animal is able to generate heat is dependent on the volume of its body. Since an increase in body size results in the volume increasing more quickly than the surface area; thus, large bodies cool down more slowly. The extremities have to be small however, to avoid heat loss.

Cave Lion

Body length 140-230 cm (4.5-7.5 ft)
Shoulder height 90-150 cm (3-5 ft)
Weight 140-400 kg (300-880 lb)
Life expectancy 20 years
Diet Carnivore Lifestyle Pack

The cave lion was a contemporary of the cave bear. It was around 25 percent larger than modern African lions. In all known cave paintings, the cave lion is also portrayed without a mane.

Despite its name, the cave lion did not live in caves. These were only visited by sick, old, or weakened animals. Complete lion corpses were also dragged into caves by cave hyenas.


Body length 92–190 cm (3-6 ft)
Shoulder height 70–80 cm (2-2.5 ft)
Weight 30–90 kg (65-200 lb)
Life expectancy 15 years
Diet Carnivore
Lifestyle Solitary

Very few leopard bones have been discovered in Switzerland. The leopard from that era corresponded to the modern type and, apart from mating season, it was also a solitary animal. Today leopards primarily live in Africa and the southern part of Eurasia.

In warmer phases of the last ice age, they also hunted on the Ebenalp.

Cave Hyena

Body length 120-180 cm (4-6 ft)
Shoulder height 80-90 cm (2.5-3 ft)
Weight 60-70 kg (130-155 lb)
Life expectancy 25 years
Diet Scavenger
Lifestyle Pack (clans)

Even cave hyenas were not true cave inhabitants, seeking these out only as a place of refuge. Findings show that cave hyenas would sometimes steal the remains of human prey and were natural enemies of cave lions.

Replica of the skull of an adult cave bear.

Canine teeth of an unborn cave bear and milk teeth of a baby cave bear.  In the Wildkirchli caves, teeth were found primarily from very young cave bears – like those in the display case – and old cave bears – like those found with the skull. The animals hibernated in the cave during winter. Weak and older bears sometimes didn’t survive the winter, as was also the case with younger bears.

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Reproduction of two vertebrae of an adult cave bear.

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Replica of the humerus of an adult cave bear.

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