An extinct cave lion cub in ‘perfect condition’ has been found in the Siberian permafrost, its head still resting gently on a paw after up to 50,000 years.
The extraordinary find – which raises hopes of cloning the long-gone species back to life in a Jurassic Park-style experiment – was unveiled today in Yakutsk, capital of Russia’s largest and coldest region, the Sakha Republic.
The cub was aged between six and eight weeks old when it died for unknown reasons deep in the Siberian permafrost.
The preservation is so good that ‘it raises hopes of cloning the species back to life’, reported The Siberian Times citing Dr Albert Protopopov, an expert with the regional academy of sciences.
Cave lions were once the largest big cats on the planet, living in cold regions in the northern hemisphere before they were wiped out.
‘It is a perfectly preserved lion cub, all the limbs have survived,’ he said.
‘There are no traces of external injuries on the skin.’
Analysis of the creature’s teeth is expected to give a good indication of the age.
Significant results are expected after around three years of research on the frozen remains, said the Dr Protopopov.
The ancient animal was found in permafrost on the bank of Tirekhtykh River, in the Abyisky district of Yakutia.
Local resident Boris Berezhnov spotted the carcass of an ‘unrecognisable animal’ in September after a fall in water level in the remote river.
Its length is around 18 inches (46cm), with a weight of almost 9lbs (4kg).
The discovery comes two years after the same researchers discovered two newborn cave lion cubs called Uyan and Dina.
Dr Protopopov said in 2015 when he unveiled the animals to the media: ‘Comparing with modern lion cubs, we think that these two were very small, maybe a week or two old.
‘The eyes were not quite open, they have baby teeth and not all had appeared.’
Uyan’s body was found to weigh about 6 pounds (2.8 kilograms) – around 4.6 pounds (2.1 kg) heavier than a modern lion newborn.
Because newborn lions don’t have any identifiable sex characteristics, it is unclear whether Uyan and Dina were male or female.
The cubs were so young, it was unlikely that they could see.
On their poster presenting the research, the team wrote: ‘Dina’s eyelids were tightly closed, while in Uyan, the left eye was closed, but the right eyelids were positioned a little apart.’
One of these is believed to contain its mother’s milk from pre-historic times.
Originally thought to be 12,000 years old, dating to around the time the species became extinct, later research showed them to be up to 55,000 year ago.
Tests will be carried out on the latest cub to discover its exact age but the current estimate is between 20,000 and 50,000 years old.
The European or Eurasian cave lion is an extinct species, known from fossils and prehistoric art.
It’s most closely related to the modern lion and ranged from Europe to Alaska over the Bering land bridge until the late Pleistocene, around 10,000 years ago.
An adult European cave lion is thought to have measured 3.9ft (1.2 metres) tall and 6.9ft (2.1 metres) in length without its tail, based on a skeleton found in Germany.
This means it was a similar size to a modern lion.
It’s thought the lions probably hunted larger herbivorous animals of their time, including horses, deer, reindeer, bison and even injured old or young mammoths.
No-one knows why the lions became extinct, but one suggestion is the population of cave bears and deer – one source of prey – caused them to die out.
Their fearsome likeness is etched on the walls of caves inhabited by ancient man.
But upper Palaeolithic humans may have hunted cave lions for their pelts, as well as sketching them.
A study published last month suggested their desire for fur, which may have been used to decorate caves, could have contributed the predator’s extinction.
As well as over-hunting, climate change, a change in prey numbers and species replacement have been suggested.
Upper Palaeolithic humans, living between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago, were previously known to have hunted other small and large carnivores such as bears, but there is little archaeological evidence showing they preyed upon lions.
In a bid to fill this gap, a team of experts led by Marián Cueto from the University of Cantabria in Spain, examined nine fossilised cave lion toe bones from the Upper Palaeolithic cave site of La Garma, in northern Spain.
Most bones showed signs of having been modified by humans using stone tools, with markings suggesting ancient man used a method similar to modern hunters when skinning prey, in order to keep the claws attached to the fur.