Practically all known remains of mammoths with preserved soft tissues have been found in Yakutia, on the territory of Russia. Permafrost helps preserve paleontological treasures. However, not only giant relatives of modern elephants are found in the region. Since 2015, scientists have discovered even the remains of more ancient animals in the realm of permafrost - there were found four bodies of prehistoric cave lions, whose age reaches 47,000 years. What did the findings tell? How are prehistoric cats different from modern ones? And is it true that this species of predators can be revived? Everything is in our material below.
Scientists from different countries found separate bones and remains of these huge cats more than once. In particular, when they found the famous mammoth Yuku, it turned out that its body was torn by claws of cave lions. However, scientists have found the bodies of animals fully preserved for the first time.
The cave lions (Panthera leo spelaea) lived during the middle (400–200 thousand years ago) and late Pleistocene (200–10 thousand years ago) periods on the territory of the Eurasian continent: from the British Isles to Chukotka, as well as in Alaska and north-western Canada. Despite the name, predators visited the caves rarely. They used it as a secluded shelter, that was necessary mainly for sick and old individuals.
Presumably, the cave lions were close relatives of modern Afro-Asian lions and they are corresponded to very large modern lions in size. The skeleton of an adult male cave lion, found in 1985 near the German Siegsdorf, had a height at the withers of 1.2 meters and a length of 2.1 meters without taking into account the tail. Stone age carvings allowed to draw some conclusions about the appearance of cave lions. Impressive images of cats were found in Southern France in the Chauvet Cave, as well as in the Vogelherdhöl Cave in the Swabian Jura in Germany. Ancient drawings show lions spotty, without a mane, with tassels on tails. The cave lions disappeared earlier than the mammoths - about 10 thousand years ago. The exact reason is unknown. According to one version, the main food of the lions - deer and cave bears - began to disappear when climate warming began, that is why the cats perished too.
A third cat was found in the same area near the Tirekhtyakh river in 2017. According to Pavel Efimov, the deputy director of the mammoth fauna collection in the Abyisky district, the find of such an unique and rare specimen of the cat family also happened by chance: “A team of employees of the Academy of Sciences went on planned excavations of the mammoth in the summer, there were suspected of carcass remains. Our employee Boris Berezhnev found, bypassing the excavations near the Tirekhtyakh River after the decline of the water level, a carcass of an animal that was incomprehensible at that time". It turned out to be a cave lion. Scientists are not superstitious people, and the prehistoric cat was called Boris in honor of the author of the find. The body of this predator survived even better than another cats, found in 2015.
Scientists found the remains of the fourth lion cub fifteen meters from the place of the previous discovery in 2018. The lion cub was named Spartak.
Russian and foreign studies
Sensational findings are still analyzed by experts from around the world. According to the dating conducted in Japan, the geological age of the lion cubs was about 47 thousand years for Uyan and Dina, about 43 thousand years for Boris and 28 thousand years for Spartak. It followed that the original assumptions of scientists that Boris and Spartak are brothers are not confirmed.
Experts studied the bodies of animals. It turned out that Uyan and Dina died when they were only a few hours old. Their eyes after birth had not yet opened, there were no traces of first teeth. Each kitten weighed about 3 kg. Due to the coldness, bodies of Uyana and Dina were perfectly preserved, thanks to that the paleontologists were able to examine them. The survey found no nutrients in animals, particularly mother's milk. This gave reason to believe that the cubs were abandoned at birth or their mother died. At the same time the remains of the soil were found in their esophaguses with the help of tomographywere. Scientists suggest that the cubs could die as a result of the collapse of the cave.
Scientists also found out that the lion cub Boris is older than Uyan, Dina and Spartak. According to Albert Protopopov, the head of the Department for the Study of Mammoth Fauna of the Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia), the member of the Republican Branch of the RGS, the lion cub was about two or three weeks old. Probably, mother fed and raised Boris, but he died shortly after his birth for unknown reasons. At the moment, Boris is the most adult individual that has been able to be saved fully.
Spartak, found in 2018, died at the age of one to two weeks. He could die of hunger according to the assumptions of scientists. Tomogram showed that his gastrointestinal tract is completely empty. Spartak has tail fully preserved - and it has a strange cut or gap. Because of this, some experts suggested that the mother-lioness killed him, obeying instincts and realizing that she could not protect and feed the kitten.
Interestingly, that the spotted wool of Spartak confirmed the theory of the color of cave lions. In Chauvet's grotto in France, some ancient lions were depicted with stains, but earlier it was thought that the Paleolithic "artist" decided to add stains for beauty. Now it can be argued that there were spot spots on the fur. Boris’s hair is also preserved - the kitten has a predominantly gray color with thicker black hairs, but the hair on his head is also covered with many black specks.
Not to clone, but to revive
The presence of four well-preserved carcasses of cave lion cubs at once will provide an opportunity to follow the development of one species. Further DNA research will show their similarities and differences with modern lions. The species question is very controversial, because some scientists attribute cave lions to tigers. By analyzing the milk in the stomachs of the cubs, it will be possible to determine the diet of lionesses.
Scientists are also thinking about the possibility of the ancient animals revival. Albert Protopopov notes that it is impossible to clone animals that perished tens of thousands of years ago, but one can raise the question of their revival. "The most promising approach of the American George Church from Harvard is the introduction of the mammoth's genes into the elephant's DNA. We have offered him such work regarding the cave lions. But there is no project yet", said Albert Protopopov.
Leading world scientists are sure that there will be even more such finds in Yakutia with the corse of time. The main reason is permafrost. Unique specimens are preserved there in the coldest region of the country thanks to the deep freeze. “I have traveled all over the world and believe that Yakutia is the richest region for such finds”, says Yosihiro Ota, the scientist, the President of Nature’s network company.
By the way:
The ancient skeleton of a woolly mammoth went under the auction in Lyon for 548 thousand euros in 2017 (640 thousand dollars, or 38 million rubles). It is believed that this is the largest skeleton, that is in private hands. 80% of the skeleton is made up of the bones of an extinct animal, the rest is resin, that serves to make the exhibit whole. The bones of an ancient animal found in the permafrost zone in Siberia.
Perhaps in the future it will be possible to find new bodies of cave lions saved even better. The Russian Geographical Society regularly conducts expeditions to study permafrost regions. So, Albert Protopopov led the expedition of the Russian Geographical Society to the Novosibirsk Islands in 2017, during which they found a unique "golden" mammoth.