Cantabrian brown bears have developed a slightly different genetic identity to other brown bears, although not as different as was once believed.

Cantabrian Brown Bear (Ursus arctos) Oso Pardo Cantábrico

Special thanks for help with this original article about the Cantabrian Brown Bear go to Lisa Stuart who, together with Mike, runs a wonderful guesthouse in the Picos de Europa national park. They also organise outdoor activities and adventures in this stunning part of Spain

Ask Lisa about finding bears in the Picos de Europa.

Listed in the Spanish Catalogue of Endangered Species (Catálogo Nacional de Especies Amenazadas) as being in danger of extinction, the Cantabrian brown bear’s existence in Spain is not widely known.

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Genetically different?

Cantabrian brown bears have developed a slightly different genetic identity to other brown bears, although not as different as was once believed. A study in 2007 led by mainly Spanish scientists hoping to prove the subspecies status of the Iberian bears, has revealed them instead to be more closely related to the European brown bear (in particular those of Southern Scandanavia) than was previously thought.
So rather than once being scientifically known as Ursus arctos pyrenaicus, they are now classed as simply Ursus arctos.

Hunted and persecuted

Having once roamed most of the mountains of the Iberian peninsular, the Cantabrian brown bear was seen by man to be competition for food and the population was reduced in the first half of the twentieth century to two isolated pockets in the northerly mountains of the Cordillera Cantábrica. Systematic persecution through hunting led to a drastic decline in numbers and a total ban on hunting did not come into force until 1973. The maximum fine for killing a bear in Spain is now €300,000.

Figures at the beginning of the 1920’s gave a total of around 160 bears split into two populations, 120 to130 straddling the borders of Asturias, León and Galicia to the west and a second population of 30 to 40 around the borders of Cantabria, León and Asturias to the east that are separated by some 30km. (See updates at the bottom of this article for current population numbers.)

Description and life cycle of the Cantabrian Brown Bear (Ursus arctos) Oso Pardo Cantábrico

Weighing in at an average of 130kg for females and 180kg for males and measuring between 1.6m–2m in length and between 0.90m-1m in height, the Cantabrian brown bear, or oso pardo cantábrico, is the smallest of the brown bear family. Their weight varies hugely depending on the time of year. Emerging from their winter hibernative state they can be very underweight and need to feed to restore their body fat whereas during the autumn they should be at their heaviest in readiness for the winter, although the last couple of winters in the Cordillera Cantábrica have been so mild that the bears have not needed to hibernate at all.

Male cantabrian brown bears fighting for dominance and the right to mate

After mating in the spring females give birth in December/January to cubs weighing only about 350g each. This is tiny compared to the size of the mother and doesn’t correlate with the length of the nine-month gestation period. Interestingly, it has been discovered that there is a natural delay in the development of the fertilised eggs early on at the blastocyst stage (before the foetus or placenta has developed). The eggs are not implanted into the uterus until five months after mating. This is attributed to the fact that the female doesn’t eat during the latter stages of pregnancy as her metabolic rate slows down for winter. To compensate for this her milk is extremely rich in nutrients and the young don’t need to suckle as much as other mammals. Litters are usually two, occasionally three, and will stay with their mother for eighteen months to two years.

Cantabrian Brown Bears Have a very high infant mortality rate

Infant mortality is high with only one of the young likely to reach maturity. On emerging from the den in spring the cubs have many dangers to face including disease and the male bear’s predilection for infanticide in the hope that this will prematurely bring the mother into season again, this not occurring naturally for about three years after giving birth. The main cause of death among bears is now, however, man-induced. Furtive trapping using snares as well as poisoned bait left for other species such as wild boar still causes deaths among the bears. Between 1980 and 1994, 54 Cantabrian brown bears died at the hands of furtive hunters. Of these, 19 were caught in traps, 2 were poisoned and the rest were shot.

Video of a male attacking a female

A male attacks a female resulting in a terrible fall down the cliffs and the male late dying from his injuries. I have not been able to find out more information about the female of the cub who retreated to a cave after the attack.

Unlike the grizzly and black bear, the oso pardo cantábrico is rarely aggressive to humans and would rather flee than confront man.

Cantabrian Brown Bear. What does it eat?

The Cantabrian brown bear is an opportunistic omnivore. Eating mainly plants, roots, fruit, berries and nuts, its mostly vegetarian diet is supplemented by insects, eggs, honey, fungi and carrion.

Since the outbreak of Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE or mad cow disease), the EU brought in laws enforcing the removal of carcasses from the countryside. This had led to a drastic shortage of carrion for the more well-known carrion eaters such as Griffon vultures and Red kites. A less well-known fact is that bears also rely on carrion, especially in the spring when they need to boost their body weight lost through the winter and in the autumn when they need to store as much fat as possible in order to survive the coming winter and its scarce food supply.

It is estimated 8 to 10 cubs died in the spring of 2007 due to, it is believed, the lack of carrion on the ground.

Apiarists (beekeepers) are also suffering as beehives are being destroyed by the bears in their search for other food supplies.

Although the laws have been revised conditionally for the re-opening of feeding stations (muladeros) for carrion eating birds, provision has yet to be made for the bears. The matter is “currently under discussion” at the EU.

Fascinating video of Cantabrian Brown Bear (Ursus arctos) Oso Pardo Cantábrico feeding on ants

Conservation efforts presently centre on joining the two isolated populations with the purpose of strengthening the gene pool to create a viable population of bears. Groups such as the Fundación Oso Pardo (FOP) and the Fundación para la Protección de Animales Salvajes (FAPAS) are working towards creating a communication corridor of protected land for the two bear-inhabited zones. Fapas, in particular, are doing some very interesting work including photographic monitoring, planting of fruit trees, encouraging the goodwill of hunters to collaborate with the locating of snares, and the installation of beehives.

A “Plan para la Recuperación del Oso Pardo Cantábrico” has been drawn up by the Spanish Ministry of the Environment to unite all efforts towards the conservation of this most emblematic of Spanish species.

Further reading about Cantabrian Brown Bears

Wikipedia Eurasion Brown bear

Fundación Oso Pardo

FOP maintains Bear Patrols in the most important bear zones of the Cantabrian Mountains and the Pyrenees. They are made up of women and men from the bears’ territories. The tasks of the patrols range from surveillance and monitoring of bear populations, to support for research programs, environmental education or orientation of visitors in protected 4 natural areas.


For more than 30 years, FAPAS has focused its efforts on the Study and Conservation of the scarce population of bears that inhabits the Cantabrian Mountains.

The interpretation centres for the brown bear in Spain. (Casas del Oso)

Bear Houses are thematic centres with contents related to the ecology and the conservation problems and challenges of the brown bear, as well as to the relationships of this emblematic species with humans with whom they share territory. The purpose of the Bear Houses is to become places of information and awareness about the brown bear and energising elements of the regions where they are located. All Bear Houses are staffed by monitors selected from the residents of the municipalities where they are located, thus creating local employment.

La Casa del Oso Pardo en los Pirineos
Bear house Pyrenees
Bear house Pyrenees

Address: Carrer del Pont, 7, Isil – Lleida

El Centro de Interpretación “Somiedo y el Oso”
Bear house Somiedo
Bear house Somiedo

Address: C/ Flórez Estrada – Pola de Somiedo – Asturias

Exposición permanente “LOS OSOS DE ARBOLIO”
Bear house permanent exhibition
Bear house permanent exhibition

Address: Edificio de Exposiciones y Audiovisuales de la Cueva de Valporquero. Carr. De Valporquero de Torío a Felmín, Vegacervera, León

Exposición permanente “EN ZONA OSO” en la Casa del Parque de la Montaña Palentina
Information centre Cervera de Pisuerga
Information centre Cervera de Pisuerga

Address: Casa del Parque Natural de la Montaña Palentina. C/El Plantío, Cervera de Pisuerga. Palencia.

Casa del Oso en Liébana
Bear house in Liébana
Bear house in Liébana

Address: Casa del Capitán (next to the Torre del Infantado) – C/ Cervantes – Potes – Cantabria

The headquarters of the Brown bear foundation in Spain
  • Web:
  • Address: c/ San Luis 17 4ºA. 39010, Santander, Cantabria. España
  • Tel: +34 942 23 49 00
  • Fax: + 34942 23 50 48
  • E-mail:

UPDATE 12/09/2023

The brown bear population in the Cantabrian Mountains has an estimated census of 370 individuals, of which 250 are in the western subpopulation and 120 in the eastern subpopulation. By autonomous communities, 53 percent of the population is in Castilla y León, with 197 specimens, followed by Asturias with 35 percent and 131 specimens, Cantabria with 31 specimens, which represent eight percent, and Galicia with three percent of the total hand of eleven animals.

Read more here:

UPDATE 07/03/2023

The brown bear population and habitat in the Cantabrian Mountains have experienced an encouraging resurgence after decades of decline. Currently, there are over 300 bears inhabiting northeastern Spain, marking a significant increase. However, despite this improvement, the species is still considered endangered in Spain. Recent research conducted by the Doñana Biological Station (EBD-CSIC) in Seville revealed that the bear’s habitat has expanded to 17,000 square kilometers for the first time in decades.

This finding aligns with the latest count of the Fundación Oso Pardo (brown bear foundation) in Spain, which reports that the brown bear population in the Cantabrian Mountains is on the rise.

UPDATE 04/05/2021

The latest study titled Cantabrian bears. Demographics, coexistence and conservation challenges. has now been published and makes fascinating reading.

Cantabrian Brown Bear (Ursus arctos) Oso Pardo Cantábrico is a flagship species of the Iberian fauna. As a key species situated at the apex of the food chain, it plays a crucial role in maintaining the functionality and diversity of the ecosystems it inhabits. Together with other flagship species, such as the wolf, Iberian lynx or Spanish ibex, the Cantabrian brown bear is an outstanding representative of the megafauna which has survived until today. They are the last witnesses of the numerous large mammals of the Pleistocene era, which have survived better in Spain than in the remainder of the Western European countries, contributing as part of the cultural heritage of the human societies alongside which they have coexisted for millennia.

The Cantabrian brown bear is a large carnivore and as such, invokes respect as well as fear amongst humans. These animals, at the same time as generating a degree of unrest among livestock farmers are also an emblematic species and indicators of the well conserved condition of the Cantabrian forests.

Guillermo Palomero, Fernando Ballesteros, Juan Carlos Blanco, José Vicente López-Bao (Editors)

Click the below link to download the publication in pdf format.

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