A roughly 28,000-year-old cave lion cub discovered frozen in Siberian permafrost has been so perfectly preserved that each of her whiskers can still be seen.
According to Swedish researchers, the cub, dubbed Sparta, is the best-preserved Ice Age animal ever discovered. The ice has mummified all of her teeth, skin, and soft tissue. Her organs are also unharmed.
Sparta is the fourth cave lion cub (Panthera spelaea) to be discovered buried in the permafrost of Yakutia, Russia’s northeast corner. Boris Berezhnev, a local resident, spotted her in 2018 while searching for ancient mammoth tusks on the tundra.
As wildlife hunting and commerce have grown increasingly restricted, ‘tusk hunters,’ such as Berezhnev, have been searching the cold north for ancient ivory. We’re unearthing more ancient remains — and not just from woolly mammoths – as climate change weakens the permafrost and extends the tusk hunting season.
Woolly rhinoceros, wolves, brown bears, horses, reindeer, and bison have all been retrieved from the permafrost in Siberia in recent years, with some of the bodies dating back 40,000 years.
These frigid steppes were clearly formerly home to a significant number of big creatures. Berezhnev discovered another cave lion body just 15 meters (49 feet) away a year before he discovered Sparta at the Semyuelyakh River.
This one, Boris, had a little more damage, presumably from the collapse of its permafrost cave, but it was still wonderfully preserved.
Boris and Sparta are believed to be one to two months old, according to Swedish researchers who assisted in the analysis. Despite their close proximity and similar features, Boris is estimated to be 15,000 years old, give or take a few centuries.
Fossils, tracks, and ancient cave art provide the majority of what we know about cave lions today.
Permafrost mummified bodies are some of the greatest evidence we have of their existence. In many aspects, their frozen bodies resemble modern lions, but on a much greater size and with a considerably warmer coat. However, cave lions lack one of the most recognizable traits of African lions: their mane.
Cave lions did not have manes, or if they did, they were very inconspicuous, according to early human artwork from the time. Dark patterns of colour can be seen on the cave lion’s face in certain Ice Age drawings, but it’s unclear what they represent.
Boris and Sparta are both young cave lions, so it’s difficult to predict how their coats would have changed as they grew older. They are largely covered in yellowish-brown fur, with some black pigmentation on the backs of their ears, according to studies.
Experts believe that if the cubs had grown up, their fur would have developed a light gray color to assist them blend in with the chilly Siberian Arctic.
The presence of a mane is significant because it can reveal information about cave lion social dynamics. Whether people live alone or in groups with obvious hierarchies, for example.
Scientists are still disputing whether cave lions roamed the steppes of Siberia on its own or in prides like current African lions during the Ice Age.
A artwork from the Ice Age found in France’s Chauvet cave depicts almost a dozen cave lions, both male and female, in the act of killing bison.
“When the prey is huge, hunting in groups can be more effective than hunting alone,” the authors of the latest study wrote. “Cave lions would have had many such prey species available in their ecosystem, such as mammoths and rhinoceros, when there were no other options open to them.”
“Moreover, big prides would have aided in the protection of their kill from competition as well as the cubs and young from predators.”
For the time being, everything is based on speculation. Despite the fact that some remarkably preserved cave lions have been discovered in recent years, we still don’t have enough knowledge about these extinct predators to draw any conclusions about their social systems.
Perhaps that will change in the future. Perhaps we’ll find another cave lion with clues to their long-lost lives. Perhaps one day we will be able to successfully resurrect cave lions.
Albert Protopopov, a paleontologist and one of the study’s authors, told the Siberian Times, “There is a very realistic opportunity to replicate cave lions, and it would be a lot easier than cloning a woolly mammoth.”
Although some experts have claimed that we do the same with woolly mammoths, cave lions are a much younger species. We could replenish their clones with some of the genes from modern African lions, according to Protopopov, making the process a little easier.
That’s an obviously divisive idea, and the reality is likely still a long way off.
For the time being, the next step is to sequence both Sparta’s and Boris’ full genomes. Then we’ll have to decide what to do with the data we’ve gathered.
The research was published in the journal Quaternary.