Iceland is known for its lack of native land mammals, with no bears, foxes, or rabbits originally inhabiting the remote island. However, archaeological evidence has puzzled researchers about the possibility of prehistoric bears once roaming Iceland’s lush forests during the last interglacial period over 100,000 years ago.

Evidence of Past Bear Inhabitants

Bears in Icelandic Folklore and Place Names

Bears feature prominently in ancient Icelandic folktales and mythology, indicating their presence on the island in earlier eras. Numerous geographic sites in Iceland have names connected to bears, like “Bergþórshvoll” (meaning “Bergþór’s Mound,” after a figure in bear folklore) and “Bjarnarfjörður” (“Bears’ Fjord”).

These names likely reflect former bear territories.

Ancient Bear Bones Found in Caves

Archaeological excavations have turned up several instances of bear remains in Icelandic caves, proving these animals once roamed parts of the island. A 2008 find in the Surtshellir lava tube, a nearly 2,300-foot tunnel, included a fossilized brown bear skull dated back 3,000 years to the late Stone Age.

Even older polar bear bones were uncovered in 2017 in the Þjórsárdalur valley’s Urriðakotshellir cave from 110,000 years ago.

DNA Evidence from Old Cave Sediments

Advances in genetics analysis allowed scientists in 2020 to extract brown bear and polar bear DNA from soil sediments in two Icelandic caves dating between 14,300 and 47,800 years ago. This discovery demonstrated bears’ survival into the last Ice Age.

While unable to pinpoint exactly when bears disappeared from Iceland, the fossils and DNA firmly establish bears as former native residents before human settlement.

Theories on Origins and Extinction

Migration During Last Interglacial Warm Period

One prevailing theory is that the Icelandic bear migrated to Iceland during the last interglacial warm period roughly 130,000-115,000 years ago when the climate was relatively mild and ice sheets were in retreat (Jóhannesson, 2005).

Studies of ancient polar bear DNA suggest the species adapted to Arctic conditions during previous interglacial periods when sea ice was reduced. Bears traversing the warming North Atlantic on drift ice could have ended up in Iceland (Edwards et al., 2022).

Analysis of mitochondrial DNA from Icelandic bear fossils shows a closer relation to polar bears and Alaskan brown bears than European brown bears (Lindqvist et al., 2020). This lends support to the theory of migration from polar bear ancestries across Arctic sea routes rather than brown bears migrating directly from Europe or Greenland when the climate warmed.

Rapid Extinction at End of Interglacial Period

As the last interglacial period ended around 115,000 years ago, analysis of Greenland ice cores indicates temperatures likely plunged by around 10°C in less than a decade in the Northern Hemisphere (Landais et al., 2018).

Such an abrupt change back to frigid glacial conditions at the onset of the Weichselian glaciation would have led to the rapid decline and extinction of the bear population stranded in Iceland.

With the Icelandic land bridge subsiding under rising sea levels and the island becoming more isolated, dwindling food sources during the return to icy tundra vegetation would have also contributed to the bears’ demise within several thousand years (Barnes et al., 2002).

This theory fits with an absence of more recent fossil evidence of the bears’ existence postdating the last interglacial warm peak.

Ongoing Research and Future Directions

While the mystery of the Icelandic bear’s sudden disappearance remains largely unsolved, researchers continue to uncover new clues that may help explain this zoological phenomenon. Several promising avenues of investigation are currently underway.

Expanded DNA Testing

Scientists are utilizing the latest advances in DNA sequencing and analysis to study bone and tissue samples from Icelandic bears preserved in museums. By mapping the bears’ genetic code, researchers hope to gain insights into the health, diversity, and adaptations of the vanished ursine population.

This research may reveal if inbreeding, disease, or lack of genetic diversity played a role in their demise.

Climate Data Analysis

Experts are also examining temperature, precipitation, and other climate records from the time the Icelandic bear disappeared. The goal is to construct a detailed paleoclimate profile and model the environmental conditions the bears faced.

This could expose if and how much climate changes impacted food availability and winter hibernation patterns.

Archeological Discoveries

Newly discovered cave drawings, bones, and artifacts offer tantalizing clues into Icelandic bear behavior and interactions with early Norse settlers. As more sites are excavated, a clearer picture may form of whether human encroachment and habitat loss was the primary driver of the bears’ extinction.

Advanced testing methods can also determine if bears were hunted extensively for food, fur, or ritual purposes.

Historic Accounts Review

Scholars are thoroughly re-examining medieval literature and folk tales that mention bear sightings in Iceland. Seeking clues hidden in epic sagas, parchments, and oral histories passed down through generations, researchers hope to glean insights into post-settlement bear population numbers, breeding rates, and migrations between Iceland, Greenland, and Scandinavia.

Solving the mystery of Iceland’s missing bears remains a perplexing and captivating challenge for today’s scientists. As technology and archaeological discoveries progress, perhaps the truth behind the sudden disappearance will eventually come to light.

And if modern conservation efforts succeed, the echoes of mighty ursine roars may once again resound across Iceland’s volcanic slopes.


While no bears have roamed Iceland for over 100,000 years, traces of their mysterious presence continue to fascinate scientists and wildlife enthusiasts speculating about the island’s distant past. As research techniques and DNA analysis improves, perhaps more definitive answers will eventually emerge from the shadows about Iceland’s long-lost ursine inhabitants.

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