Two well–preserved cave lion cubs, complete with fur, ears, and whiskers, were unveiled Tuesday in Russia. They were discovered in a Siberian ice sheet in Yakutia this past summer, marking the first time humans have seen the extinct species in over 10,000 years.
“The findings of such well-preserved [specimens] is an extremely rare find,” Albert Protopopov, head of the Department of Mammoth Fauna Studies in Yakutsk, told FoxNews.com. “The new discovery is of great importance to science, as for the first time [we’ve] found the frozen carcasses of an extinct species from more than ten thousand years ago, the cave lion.”
About the size of two fat domestic cats, the baby cave lions were introduced in a presentation at the “Permafrost Kingdom” museum, 3,000 miles east of Moscow. Dubbed Uyan and Dina for the Uyandina River area in which they were found, the cubs have such well–preserved soft tissues that local Academy of Science researchers believe that cloning may be a distinct possibility, though that’s a ways off. For now, the scientists are focusing on inspecting the cubs’ internal organs and DNA with the hope of learning more about the species origins.
Researchers believe that the two cubs were placed in a hole by their mother for protection, only to then be covered by a landslide. From then on the site remained undisturbed until this past summer, when a sudden rise and fall in the Uyandina River resulted in cracks appearing in the ice sheet. A local named Yakov Androsov then found an ice lens containing the two cubs.
Until now, only carcass fragments and skeleton parts of these creatures have been found. As recently as May, an incomplete though excellently–preserved adult postcranial skeleton, as well as a lower jaw and bundle of fur, were found by locals in Yakutia’s Malyi Anyui river basin. However, those discoveries pale in comparison to this latest find, which is giving the modern world a complete look at the cave lion for the first time.
According to Des Moines University fossil field expert Julie Meachen, such finds are extremely rare. “Usually all we find are bones – and if we’re lucky they still have collagen in them,” she explained. “Occasionally we find good dung also, but to find something with skin and organs intact that’s been extinct for the last 11,000 years is absolutely incredible.”
Though many ice age mammals have been found mummified in Alaska and Canada, Siberia has offered the most finds in recent years – particularly Yakutia, which, according to Protopopov, is “the coldest region in the world.”
“Yakutia has yielded some of the most impressive extinct frozen animals to date,” Meachen told FoxNews.com. “Since it has been continually cold since the Ice Age the preservation is amazing. There really isn’t any other place I can think of with preservation this fantastic.”
Cave lions, which were first identified in 1810, lived between 10,000 and 300, 000 years ago. It’s still unknown how many species there were or whether they were a type of African lion or a tiger species. With more discoveries like the recent mummified cubs cropping up as the permafrost melts in Eurasia, researchers are hoping to unlock mysteries about the cave lions and the Ice Age.
“To date, these are the most complete Pleistocene carnivore remains ever found,” Meachen said. “It is a pretty big deal, especially for scientists like me who study carnivores and big cats.”