Today the Lion’s Den introduces you to an incredible lion species! About 12,000 years ago the Eurasian cave lion (or Panthera spelaea) became extinct. It is one of the largest lion species ever known. The extinct North American lion (Panthera atrox) is the only one that was larger. Some scientists say that the Eurasian cave lion would have measured up to 10% larger than the modern lion (Panthera leo).
Within cave paintings, it is often displayed as having a sort of plush collar as well as stripes. Various analyses show that the cave lion is genetically distinct from the modern lion. An analysis of morphological differences as well as mitochondrial data shows that the cave lion diverged from the lion about 1.9 million years ago.
1) Basics of the Eurasian Cave Lion
- Zoological Name: Panthera leo spelaea
- Habitat: Forests and mountains of Eurasia
- Time Period: Middle to late Pleistocene (about 700,000-12,000 years ago)
- Size and weight : Up to 2.1 meters long (without tail) and 317-362 Kg
- Diet: Meat
- Distinguishing features: Large size; powerful limbs; possibly manes and stripes
As we saw earlier, the cave lion was probably one of the largest beasts ever seen. It is likely that the cave lion was related to the tiger because of the shape of its skull. However, with the totality of genetic analysis, the modern lion is indeed the one that is closest, even if these two cats have diverged.
This brave cave-dwelling beast is known for its Paleolithic cave paintings, ivory sculptures and clay figurines. It is possible that this animal could have been represented in religious rituals of the Paleolithic. In France, a drawing of the Chauvet cave which would date from approximately 30 000 years lets appear two lions of the caves walking together.
In this drawing, the feline in the foreground is smaller than the one in the background which is drawn with a scrotum and without a mane. These paintings suggest that male cave lions had either no manes or a very small one. Before studies showed the genetic separation of the modern lion from the cave lion, the cave lion was thought to be one of the largest subspecies of lion.
During 2016, hair that was found near the Maly Anyuy River was identified as cave lion hair using DNA analysis. Comparison with the hair of a modern lion revealed that the cave lion hair was probably the same color as that of the modern lion, but slightly lighter. We believe that the cave lion had a very thick and dense undercoat of both closed and compressed yellowish to white downy hairs and a lighter mass of darker guard hairs. This could be due to an adaptation to the climate of the ice age!
In 2001, the subspecies P. spelaea vereshchagini was proposed for seven specimens found in Siberia and the Yukon, which have a smaller skull and teeth than the middle member of P. spelaea. Genetic analysis using ancient DNA provided no evidence for their distinct subspecies status; the DNA signatures of P. spelaea from Europe and Alaska were indistinguishable, suggesting a large panmictic population.
One author considered the cave lion to be more closely related to the tiger, based on a comparison of skull shapes, and proposed the scientific name Panthera tigris spelaea.
4) Where Did the Cave Lion Live ?
As the most ferocious predator of the late Pleistocene, the cave lion roamed a large area of Eurasia, Alaska and part of northwestern Canada. This feline liked to feed on various mammals of the megafauna including prehistoric horses and elephants.
5) Why Is It Called the Cave Lion ?
The name “cave lion” is related to the fact that this feline attacked hibernating cave bears, many skeletons have been found in the heart of these caves. This has nothing to do with the fact that it lived in the caves.
6) Why Did the Cave Lion Disappear ?
To this day, we don’t know exactly why this cat disappeared from the earth about 12,000 years ago. It is possible that the cave lion population suffered from the decline of the species it hunted. With global warming, forest areas were increasing which put great pressure on the species. It is possible that human migration played a role in this disappearance, since it would have been in competition with lions for the same prey.
7) Remarkable Discoveries
In 2015, a discovery was made by researchers in Siberia, where two frozen cubs from Eurasian caves were found. These lion cubs were up to 55,000 years old and were named Uyan and Dina. In the same region of Siberia another cub was found in 2017. This one was about 8 weeks old when it died. The following year in 2018, a fourth cub was found in the Siberian permafrost, this feline was estimated to be about 30 000 years old.
The body of this one was in a good state of preservation, muscles and internal organs including also the heart, the brain and the lungs. Indeed, it is not so rare that explorers find frozen mammoths, however these are the first cases of prehistoric cats found in the heart of permafrost. It would be possible to recover DNA fragments from the cubs in order to clone them.