On Wednesday, scientists in the frigid Russian republic of Yakutia revealed an impressive find: the remains of an extinct cave lion cub, likely hidden in permafrost, or permanently frozen ground, for thousands of years.
According to The Siberian Times, a local resident discovered the cub on the banks of the Tirekhtykh River this September. Researchers estimate that the animal was between one-and-a-half to two months old when it perished up to 50,000 years ago.
This isn’t the first time Russia’s Siberian heartland has yielded nearly perfectly preserved remains: In 2015, scientists at the Sakha Republic Academy of Sciences announced the discovery of two ancient lion cubs named Uyan and Dina. Initially thought to date back around 12,000 years, the cubs were later dated to between 25,000 and 55,000 years ago.
As National Geographic’s Brian Switek reported at the time, Uyan and Dina were about two to three weeks old when the ceiling of their den collapsed and buried them deep in Yakutia’s permafrost. They remained there, preserved in the cold, until summer flooding unearthed their remains thousands of years later.
Academy paleontologist Albert Protopopov led the team that studied Uyan and Dina, and he will also examine the new cub. Protopopov tells local news outlet Yakutia Media that the baby lion is “perfectly preserved. … It has all the limbs, there are no traces of external injuries on the skin [and] it is even better than the lion found in 2015.”
Many details about the cub—including its cause of death and sex—remain unclear, but Protopopov says scientists will have more definitive findings within the next three years. Compared to Uyan and Dina, the currently unnamed lion is in an exceptional state of preservation, and, The Siberian Times reports, will be easier to date because it was old enough to have teeth at the time of its death.
Cave lions wandered the European steppe until about 10,000 years ago, writes National Geographic’s Sarah Gibbens. Until the discovery of the preserved cubs, most knowledge of the species derived from the study of bones and tracks. Now, Gibbens says, scientists have a better understanding of the prehistoric creatures’ significance—and may even use their findings to investigate the possibility of bringing cave lions back to life.
After Uyan and Dina’s discovery, the Academy released a statement saying, “Given that the cubs have well-preserved soft tissues, we believe that they can be cloned. But we can speak about the results of this work in two or three years.”
The idea of de-extinction, or cloning extinct animals, has divided the scientific community for years, but the Russian team is eager to explore it further. As Protopopov tells The Siberian Times, the new discovery has raised hopes that cloning the species will be possible in a not-so-distant future.
(Smithsonian.com, November 10, 2017)