Perfectly Preserved Prehistoric Lion Cub Found in Russian Permafrost

A perfectly preserved cave lion cub has been found in the Russian permafrost, raising questions of cloning from DNA. Screenshot from YouTube video by The Siberian Times

Permafrost isn't what it used to be, folks. The perennially frozen ground of the extreme Northern Hemisphere seems to be softening up at a rate we have unfortunately become accustomed to in these days of climate change, along with coral reef death, dispossessed polar bears and crazy storms, droughts, heat waves and flooding. But this article is not about climate change, it's about mummified baby prehistoric cave lions.

This September, thanks to some melting permafrost in the far northeastern region of Russia called Yakutia, a resident stumbled upon the frozen remains of a year-old cave lion (Panthera spelaea), a species that went extinct during the last ice age, over 10,000 years ago. Scientists don't yet know exactly when the cub died (although they estimate between 20,000 and 50,000 years ago), but it is improbably well-preserved — fur, paws, little cat nostrils, everything compressed into a brick about as long as a bowling pin.

This is not the first time cave lion remains have been found in the Yakutia's melting permafrost. In 2015, two infant cave lions were found in a nearby river valley, in such good condition that a CT scan revealed something still in the belly of one of the cubs — perhaps mother's milk or gastric juices.

Of course, there's DNA to be had with these prehistoric cats, which has brought up the possibility of bringing Panthera spelaea back from the dead. It's not unfeasible — in 2008, a team of scientists cloned a mouse that had been dead for 16 years — but some scientists argue that cloning would be unethical, or just plain pointless. Because once we make them, what are we supposed to do with them?

So, for now, the cloning discussion has been tabled and scientists are looking into this cub's sex, age and the way it might have died.

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