Russian researchers have announced the discovery of cave lion cubs found in the Ice Age permafrost of Yakutia, Siberia. The frozen cats are the first of their kind ever found in such a well-preserved state.
At least one of the cats, seen in a photo released with the announcement, is so delicately preserved that even its fur is intact. The kitten has been frozen this way for at least 10,000 years, although the initial report notes that they could be even older.
“As far as I know, there has never been a prehistoric cat found with this level of preservation,” Des Moines University fossil felid expert Julie Meachen says, “so this is truly an extraordinary find.”
First described in 1810, cave lion remains have been found from Eurasia to North America. Up until now, however, the fossil record of this big cat was restricted to bones and tracks.
For the moment, the scientists studying the cubs are remaining tight-lipped about the discovery. Sakha Republic Academy of Science paleontologist Albert Protopopov declined to answer questions about the cats, awaiting a scheduled November 17 press conference to release the initial findings. The event will also highlight other spectacular finds made in the region, such as “Yuka” the woolly mammoth.
Nevertheless, given that cats rule the Internet, a photo of one of the Ice Age kittens has been stoking the excitement of both cat fanciers and paleontologists. “I was a little in disbelief when I first saw it, but when it looked to be true I was just in awe,” Meachen says.
The cave lion—sometimes called a steppe lion, because it prowled open grasslands rather than staying restricted to rocky dens—is an extinct subspecies of Panthera leo, today's lion.
Cute as the frozen cubs are, their importance is more than skin deep. Researchers “should be able to get cause of death information, parasite loads of these cubs,” and more, Meachen says, noting that if there’s mother’s milk still in the cubs’ stomachs, paleontologists might be able to determine what the adult lions were eating.
“I am sure we have only begun to think of all the questions we could ask,” Meachen says, as the cubs provide a new window into a frigid world of not so very long ago.