The Eurasian Cave Lion : Who Is It and Did He Still Alive ?

The cave lion is a subspecies of lion that became extinct about 12,400 years ago. It was one of the largest subspecies of lions to ever live. Scientists believe it was up to ten percent larger than modern lions 🦁. It is often depicted in cave paintings as having some sort of collar fuzz and possibly stripes! We introduce you to this animal that fascinates so much even thousands of years after it disappeared from the earth.

Facts and Stories About the Cave Lion.

cave lion killing deer
Illustration of a Cave Lion Attacking a Deer.

Ten thousand years ago, the cave lion Panthera spelaea, a very intriguing subspecies of the modern-day lion that thrives on the Eurasian plateau, disappeared for unknown reasons. A mighty sovereign of the European steppe, the cave lion covered territories from Spain to the extreme east of Russia. Fossils and bones were unearthed, even in Alaska.

This was the loss of one of the largest subspecies of lions to ever roam our planet. Scientists estimate that the cave lion was even slightly larger than the average lion we see today.

Cave Lion Basics:

 Scientific namePenthera Leo Spelaea
HabitatEurasian forests and mountains
Historical periodPleistocene (500 000-2 000 years ago)
Size and weightUp to 2.4 meters long and 360 kilos
Distinctive characteristicsLarge size ; powerful limbs ; possibly manes and stripes

About the Cave Lion (Panthera Leo Spelaea)

One of the most fearsome predators of the late Pleistocene, the cave lion (Panthera leo spelaea) is technically classified as a subspecies of Panthera leo, the modern lion. This was discovered through genetic sequencing of the fossil remains of the cave lion. Essentially, it was a larger cat that roamed the vast expanse of Eurasia. It feasted on a wide variety of mammals, including prehistoric horses and prehistoric elephants.

cave lion fossil
Skeleton of a Panthera Spelaea in the Natural Museum in Vienna, Austria.

The cave lion was also a voracious predator of the cave bear, Ursus spelaeus. In fact, this cat got its name, not because it lived in caves, but because many intact skeletons have been found in cave bear habitats. Cave bears in hibernation, which seemed to be a great thing to do until their victims woke up!

The Last Cave Lion.

The last cave lions lived about 14,000 years ago in what is now Alaska. Genetic studies show that the cave lion and the modern African lion are sister groups that diverged to become separate species about 1.9 million years ago. In turn, about 300,000 years ago, the cave lion gave rise to the American lion (Panthera artox), which lived only in North America and has since become extinct.

The Extinction of the Cave Lion

As with many prehistoric predators, it is not known why the cave lion disappeared from the face of the earth about 2,000 years ago. It is possible that it was hunted to extinction by early human settlers in Eurasia, who would have had an interest in aggregating and eliminating any cave lions in the immediate vicinity. These same humans regarded the cave lion with respect and admiration, as evidenced by numerous cave paintings 🎨. However, it is more probable that the cave lion died from a mixture of climate change and the extinction of its common prey; however, small groups of Homo sapiens were able to more easily hunt prehistoric deer, pigs, and other mammals than these huge, crazy predators.

In October 2015, researchers in Siberia made an astonishing discovery: a group of frozen cave lion kittens from around 10,000 BC. One of them still had its fur intact. While it is not uncommon for explorers to come across frozen woolly mammoths, this is the first time a prehistoric cat has been found in permafrost. It opens up entirely new avenues of investigation into life during the Late Pleistocene: for example, laboratory technicians may be able to analyze the kittens’ recently ingested breast milk and thus discern their mother’s diet. It is also possible to recover DNA fragments from the soft tissues of the cubs in the cave, which may one day facilitate the “de-extinction” of Panthera Leo Spelaea.

The first pair of cubs has been hailed as a “sensational” find because of the way the tiny bodies have been preserved, showing authentic details, including fur, paw, soft tissue, even with whiskers still bristling after so many thousands of years of permanent freezing.

Cave Lions Could Be Brought Back to Life !

eurasian cave lion
Illustration of a Cave Lion in Winter.

An adult member of the species was up to 2.40 meters long and weighed up to 360 kilograms. The creature was more than capable of taking down an elephant.

Cave paintings depict the cave lion as having fairly powerful limbs and possibly stripes and manes. There was perhaps no scarier predator in the late Pleistocene than this one.

When the October 2015 discovery was revealed to the public -a month later- in November 2015 therefore. The prehistoric infants attracted the attention of the whole world.

As shared by the Siberian Times, experts have exposed the hypothesis that after giving birth, the mother would have sheltered the infants in a hole or a cave to protect them from other predators. But an incident such as a landslide would have trapped the cubs in their den, trapping them inside without access to oxygen. Such a scenario in the freezing temperatures of Siberia ❄️, is probably what helped in their preservation.

Laboratory tests were conducted on the cave lions to ensure that they did not carry an ancient deadly pathogen. When nothing hostile was found, further tests were performed, including radiocarbon dating to establish their true age. The results were fascinating. It was determined that the cubs were no more than a few weeks old and that their teeth were still forming and that they would have been born about 50,000 years ago.

frozen lion cave
Mummy of a Cave Lion Found in Yakutia.

The second discovery took place on the bank of the Tirekhtyakh river, also in the Abyysky district of Yakut. Permanently frozen by the infinite cold, the head of the young animal was still resting on its fluffy paws, some 50,000 years later.

According to the experts, the third newly found cub seemed even better preserved than the two previous ones. All of its limbs had survived the passage of time, no damage had been noticed to the skin, and everything on its face was clearly recognizable.

“Today, after only two years, a new cave lion has been discovered in the Abyyski district,” commented Dr. Albert Protopopov, a paleontologist at the Academy of Sciences of the Sakha Republic.

While the cubs found in 2015 were only a few weeks old, the one found in 2017 was a bit older. It was still an infant, but its teeth had already formed when its little heart stopped beating. The fur still covered the body, its legs were all distinguishable, but the most fascinating part: the position of its face resting on one of its legs.

Findings like this are rare, and the conversation about disinterment quickly followed. The idea of reviving extinct species has divided the scientific community for years, but the Russian team of scientists who researched the cubs seemed eager to explore it further. They announced their intentions in a statement shortly after the 2015 discovery that the preserved soft tissue could contribute to a cloning effort. “But we can talk about the results of this work in just two or three years,” he said.

In March 2016, South Korean cloning expert Hwang Woo-suk, a recognized pioneer in the research effort to bring back the extinct woolly mammoth, visited Yakutsk. According to the Siberian Times, Woo-suk took skin and muscle tissue samples from Dina, the couple’s female.

cave lion Paleolithic Rock Painting
Upper Paleolithic Rock Painting Depicting Lions Without Manes, Found in the Chauvet Cave, France.

At the time, the other little one was not researched at all. As Dr. Protopopov noted, “We intend to save it for the future.” He added, “Research methods are constantly being improved, about once a decade, there is a mini-revolution in this field. We will do everything we can to keep this carcass frozen for as long as possible.”

The third cub of 2017 has only helped to further stimulate the conversation about how to bring this and other species back to life.

Even if cloning experiments don’t lead to anything substantial, further research on the preserved cubs could ultimately provide answers to the question of why the cave lion ⛰went extinct thousands of years ago. One theory is that it was the decline of the cave bear and deer population that led to the disappearance of the cave lion – a disruption in the food chain that could have been fueled by none other than a small group of Homo Sapiens.

The Cave Lion Mummy May Not Be What It Seems..

A Russian searching for mammoth tusks in eastern Siberia made an unexpected discovery in September: the incredibly hairy, slightly squashed mummy of a cat from the last ice age. Scientists are celebrating the rare find, but they’re not sure about one major point – whether the mummy is a cave cub or a lynx kitten, paleontologists told Live Science.

If the kitten is a lynx, it would be only the second species of lynx from the last ice age to be discovered in Beringia, a region that includes parts of Russia, Alaska and Canada, said Olga Potapova, curator and collections manager at the Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, South Dakota, who is helping with logistics to study the new specimen.

People have been collecting and studying frozen bones and mummies in eastern Siberia for at least 300 years, and “that has yielded only one fossil bone of this lynx species,” Potapova told Live Science in an email. Thus, “the discovery of the complete mummy of this species would be very surprising and interesting,” she said.

lion cave skull
Skeleton Head of a Panthera Spelaea in the Natural Museum in Vienna, Austria.

An Amazing Discovery (Lion of Caverns).

Boris Berezhnev discovered the Ice Age kitten on the banks of the Tirekhtykh River (also known as Tirekhtyakh) in East Siberian Yakutia, a region the size of India with a population roughly equal to Delaware. Having found the frozen and hairy mummy, Berezhnev’s boss notified the scientists of the Yakutia Academy of Sciences, which visited the mummy at the academy a couple of days later.

The scientists had little time to study the mummy: They still don’t know how long it lived, whether it was a male or a female and – of course – whether it was a lion or a lynx, although new observations suggest that it was the latter, Potapova said.

But it is likely that the mummy belongs to the Pleistocene time, an era that lasted from about 2.6 million to about 11,700 years ago.

If the mummy is a cave lion, “we think this discovery dates back to the late Pleistocene, given that cave lions became extinct with the woolly mammoths,” said Albert Protopov, director of the department of mammoth wildlife studies at the Academy and a student of the feline, in an email to Live Science. Protopov had nothing but praise for the recovered mummy, which is in remarkable condition, he said.

“The mummy is 100 % perfect and the hairs are perfectly preserved,” explains Protopov. “The skin of the new mummy is simply marvelous – it is mainly gray and spotted with black guard hairs (the longest hairs). The head’s hair has many black spots.”

If this is a cave lion, its size suggests the cub was probably between 1.5 months and 2 months old when it died “probably due to the collapse of the den,” Protopov said. Noting that “the mummy’s body is deformed, and its head is crushed” because of the weather.

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