Researchers say a cave lion cub believed to be the best preserved ice age animal ever discovered dates back to more than 28,000 years ago.
A study published in the journal Quaternary details the discovery of two mummified baby cave lions in the Siberian Arctic by local mammoth tusk collectors in 2017 and 2018. The extinct cave lions were widely spread throughout eastern Siberia in the late Pleistocene period and were a bigger relative of the African lions that live today.
Researchers initially thought the two cubs, believed to be 1 or 2 months old when they died, were siblings as they were discovered just dozens of feet from one another. But the new study found they differ in age by around 15,000 years.
One female cub nicknamed “Sparta” dates back about 28,000 years ago while “Boris,” a male, is more than 43,000 years old, according to radiocarbon dating.
The study details how Sparta was preserved in permafrost in near-perfect condition. The cub’s fur is mostly intact, along with her teeth, skin, soft tissue and organs.
“Sparta is probably the best preserved Ice Age animal ever found, and is more or less undamaged apart from the fur being a bit ruffled. She even had the whiskers preserved. Boris is a bit more damaged, but still pretty good,” Love Dalen, a professor of evolutionary genetics at the Centre for Paleogenetics in Stockholm and author of the study said.
“Given their preservation they must have been buried very quickly. So maybe they died in a mudslide, or fell into a crack in the permafrost,” Dalen said.
Researchers found that the coat of the cave lions was much like that of the modern African lion cub, but with a long thick fur undercoat that likely helped them adapt to the harsh conditions of the region.