Scientists have recovered the remains of two extinct lion cubs from the permafrost of Siberia. The pair of infants, nicknamed Uyan and Dina, were estimated to be just a week or two old when they died at least 12,000 years ago, and are fantastically well preserved. Dr. Albert Protopopov of the Yakutian Academy of Sciences told The Siberian Times that the pair are easily the most intact cave lion remains ever found. They "are complete with all their body parts: fur, ears, soft tissue and even whiskers," he said, adding that it's possible they died after their mother left them in a cave to go hunting, and they were covered by a landslide. "This is how we explain such unique preservation of the animals."
The species the cubs belong to went extinct at the very end of the Pleistocene Era around 12,000 years ago, the end of which corresponds with the close of the last ice age. The cave lion is a subspecies of Panthera leo, the modern lion, and there's some evidence to suggest that prehistoric humans hunted them. Fossil records suggest cave lions were only slightly larger than today's lions, and although the reason for their extinction is not clear, research conducted on the two cubs may provide clues.
The cubs were described as the size of a plump house cat. (Image credit: Vera Salnitskaya / The Siberian Times)
They are easily the best-preserved cave lion remains ever found. (Image credit: Vera Salnitskaya / The Siberian Times)
Scientists can look for the cubs' cause of death, for parasites, and perhaps even find remains of their mother's milk in their stomachs — helping to determine what adult cave lions ate. "It's interesting to see the adaptive mechanisms which helped them to survive in the cold," Dr. Gennady Boeskorov told The Siberian Times. "They definitely differed from the modern lion, and we think there should be something that allowed them to adapt to the climate."
The cubs were found in ice of the Abyisky district of Siberia, the same region of Russia where Yuka — a similarly intact 39,000-year-old baby wooly mammoth — was recovered in 2013. When Yuka was discovered, scientists quickly suggested that the animal might be a candidate for cloning, given that its eyes, blood, and certain organs were all found intact. However, this is an extremely distant possibility. Even when animals have been perfectly frozen their cells are irreparably damaged over time. Protopopov said that talk of cloning the cave lions was "premature" at best. "I would not talk about cloning now," he said. "Our main task here is to decipher the genome and to work with it."