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 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.

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 give 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.

Description and life cycle

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.

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.

Unlike the grizzly and black bear, the oso pardo cantábrico is not 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 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.

The Picos de Europa – Picos Rock and Snow holidays

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.

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