Under the permafrost, frozen and buried two fossils who had not seen the light of day in over 10,000 years lay waiting to be discovered. Once dug up from their icy grave, it would be the first time that modern humans would see the face of the long extinct species known Panthera spelaea (Goldfuss) or, the Cave Lion.
Found this summer in the Sakha (Yakutia) Republic of Siberia, the discovery of two almost perfectly preserved Cave Lion cubs is being hailed as unprecedented. The cubs are thought to be at least 10,000 years old with some speculating that they may be even older. Prior to finding the two cubs, only skulls, teeth and bone fragments of the Cave Lion had been found in Yakutia. Researchers are hoping the two cubs will help reveal why the species died out around 10,000 years ago.
The Cave Lion lived during the middle to late Pleistocene epoch, approximately 340 000 – 10 000 years ago, and roamed across Europe from the British Isles to Siberia, Alaska and northwestern Canada. At some point they even went into the Americas (crossing the Bering land bridge) to become the American Lion (Panthera leo Atrox).
Images from Pleistocene art depict the Cave Lions with a small ‘ruff’ on the neck rather than the large manes we see on modern Lions. The large distinguishing manes are thought to be a recent evolutionary trait of the African Leo lineage, acquired after the split from other Lion groups. Cave Lions did however pass down, to their descendants, a predisposition for a group social structure as depicted in the caves at Chauvet France. There paintings often show groups of three, four or more Lions together suggesting that “the big cats also hunted and lived in prides.”
Cave lions could have looked more like today’s Tigers, as early representations of the cat include faint Tiger like stripes, although genetic analysis revealed that they are more related to modern Lions than Tigers. Their diet probably consisted of large herbivorous animals of their time, including horses, deer, reindeer, and bison. Cave Lions likely also took advantage of sick, injured or old animals to supplement their diets.
The Cave Lion had few enemies and seemed to be adapted to change, so why they went extinct is a still a mystery. One theory is the decline in their prey species, such as deer and cave bears, caused their demise. Other theories include climate change and the appearance of man. What we can say for sure is the factors that pushed the Cave Lion into extinction seem to be recurring themes, with some of the same threats plaguing our modern Lions today.
No further details of the two Cave Lion Cubs are being released, for now their secrets are still frozen in time. The world will have to wait until November when the results of the research is given at a presentation to the Russian and international media.