Could the two Cave Lion cubs recently found in Russia’s frozen north be a link to a creature reportedly lurking in the Alaskan wilderness? The history and description of cave lions reminded me of another puzzle in the cryptid world, Alaska’s Tiger. Do they or don’t they exist? Are they tigers or could they actually be lions? Cave lions? CryptoVille investigates!
In the summer of 2015, scientists uncovered the intact remains of two cave lion cubs in Yakutia, Russia. At first glance the scientists estimated the cubs to be about 10,000 years old, if not older. They were found in the permafrost layer dating to at least the Middle and Late Pleistocene era.
They said these cubs “… are the best preserved ever unearthed in the world.” They expect to learn a great deal from these little creatures that will really enhance our understanding of that era, these creatures, and more.
The Yakutia Academy of Sciences spokesperson said, “Since the soft tissues of the cubs are practically not damaged, our scientists believe it might be possible to clone them. We’ll see how it goes in a couple of years.”
The scientists named the cubs Uyan and Dina because they were found near the Uyandina River. So far they figure the cubs died when they were 2 or 3 weeks old. They hadn’t even cut their teeth yet.
Head of the mammoth fauna studies department at the Yakutia Academy of Sciences, Albert Protopopov, said, “We will conduct computer-based and radiocarbon investigations, genetics and molecular examinations of the DNA, and inspect the cubs’ internal organs. This complex research will tell us a lot about the origin of cave lions and their kin group.”
How did they die? The scientists guess that a landslide buried their den and they suffocated.
Next year, the scientists hope to continue the search for more cave lion evidence, either another cub or a she-lion.
The first thing I found very interesting is that cave lions (Panthera spelaea) roamed most of the northern hemisphere including the British Isles, across Europe into Russia and all the way over to the most Eastern areas of Russia. They also roamed Alaska and northwestern Canada.
We’re not really sure what’s roaming the incredibly wild and remote areas of Alaska, but it gets me wondering. See the map left showing the uninhabited areas of Alaska. I have to wonder, could the Alaskan Tiger reports really be about Cave Lions that somehow evaded extinction and continue to thrive in the remote areas of the world?
Let’s see if that’s possible.
Giant herbivores who lived alongside the cave lions went extinct in that era because they couldn’t find enough food to keep their huge bodies going. But cave lions are smaller animals compared to the giant herbivores and didn’t need as much food daily as the giant herbivores, so you would think they might have survived. Add to that the fact that the lions had few predators. They also didn’t venture into boggy areas where they would have been trapped by the muck like other dinosaurs were.
So what killed them? The scientists figure it must have been a decline in their favorite prey of choice: deer and cave bears (pictured above left).
But I have to think, surely there must have been other types of animals around for them to eat. Hmmm.
Though there was variation within the species, as there is in most mammals, scientists believe they were a large lion. Our modern day African lions are also considered large. Some remains of the cave lions indicate that they could have grown to be 8-10% larger than today’s African lion, but not all did.
Scientists believe these animals had protruding ears that were round, tufted tails, a primitive mane in the neck area, probably on males, and very faint stripes like a tiger would have. The scientists gleaned this data from many Paleolithic cave paintings that showed these animals in quite a bit of detail (pictured above).
Habitat is important because we have to consider whether Alaska would be suitable for them in the modern era. Scientists believe they preferred conifer forests and grasslands, but suspect they tolerated a wide range of habitats.
Fossil finds indicate that the cave lions ate a lot of reindeer and reindeer are still around today in great numbers. But during that Pleistocene era a lot of Earth changes were occurring, turning vast plains into forests which would have suited the hunting tactics of a cave lion. However, it would have been bad for what seems to be their main prey, cave bears.
Add to that the addition of wolves into the habitat and Paleolithic humans, and there’s more competition for the same food sources. (Artist’s interpretation of cave lions and bears in the Pleistocene era, pictured below right.)
That’s why scientists seem to believe they cave lions died out – their main source of prey did before them. In an article on PrehistoricWildlife.com, the unnamed author writes, “Unless prey is incredibly numerous, no two predators can co-exist by hunting the same prey in the same ecosystem, and eventually one would give. Whereas the Eurasian cave lion was a much larger and more powerful predator, wolves do not require as much food to feed their smaller bodies. Additionally wolves use completely different hunting tactics to hunt food. Lions hunt by ambush because they cannot outrun a fast animal like a deer in a straight race, they are just not built for it … A pack of wolves will deliberately force a herd of deer to run so that they can pick out the slower and weaker individuals.”
So the wolves and the humans would win the battle for food.
That sounds like the death knell for the cave lion, doesn’t it? But guess what. Reindeer live in Alaska. But don’t get too excited. We have to be cautious because wolves also live there.
“There are approximately 750,000 wild caribou in Alaska (including some herds that are shared by Alaska and Canada’s Yukon Territory). The largest herds (as of 2011) are the Western Arctic Herd at about 325,000, the Porcupine Caribou Herd at about 169,000, the Central Arctic Herd at 67,000, the Fortymile Herd at 52,000 and the Teshekpuk Herd at about 55,000. Caribou are somewhat cyclic in number, and the timing of declines and increases, and the size to which herds grow is not very predictable. Although overhunting caused some herds to remain low in the past, today, varying weather patterns (climate), population density, predation by wolves and grizzly bears, and disease outbreaks determine whether most herds increase or decrease.”
That’s still a lot of caribou! Perhaps enough to sustain a population of lions in the frozen North?
Tiger and Lion Confusion
In a scholarly paper I read by Gennady Baryshnikov and Gennady Boeskorov in an article for CRANIUM, 18, 1-2001 titled, The Pleistocene cave lion, Panthera spelaea (Carnivora, Felidae) from Yakutia, Russia, they write,
“Fossil remains of a large Panthera from Pleistocene deposits of the Siberian Arctic were first identified by Chersky (1891) who attributed them to Felis [=Panthera] tigris L., the modern tiger. This attribution was due to the difficulty of distinguishing osteologically between P. tigris and P.leo, the modern lion, and also to the fact that tigers in east Siberia have a northern distribution that reaches as [far as] the Aldan river in Yakutia.”
Then in an article about cave lions on Wiki, their writer states, “… and at least one authority, basing his conclusion on a comparison of skull shapes, considers the cave lion to be more closely related to the tiger, which would result in the formal name Panthera tigris spelaea. However, recent genetic research shows that among extant felids it was most closely related to the modern lion ….”
So that means the bones of the tiger and the lion are so similar, it’s hard to distinguish one from the other. That’s why I’m wondering if these reported Alaskan tigers may be cave lions. Over the millennia they would almost certainly have evolved to be a bit different in appearance, so who knows.
I say that because in a past interview with Charlie Baer, a professor of evolutionary genetics at the University of FL, Gainesville, he said that it’s possible for African lions to have evolved into a slightly different population over 400 years. We were discussing the “Black Beasts of Britain” and if wealthy landowners in the 1600s let their beasts loose back then, could they have evolved to look a little differently than their African cousins today. The answer was yes.
Also, in my article about the Alaskan Tiger, I mentioned another scientist (Sandra J Herrington formerly of the Museum of Natural History, University of Kansas, Overland Park), who finally figured out how to tell the difference between tigers and lions from their skeletons.
Anyway, so perhaps our purported Alaskan Tiger is just an evolved Alaskan Cave Lion.
The only way we’re going to ever know is by finding a carcass and the possibility is extremely remote. There’s a reason why Alaska has such a huge uninhabited area – it’s nearly impossible for humans to survive there. So no one is around to search for these big predators.
Then add to that the debate about habitat and competing predators. Could cave lions have survived where wolves also lived, hunting the same prey? Well reindeer and caribou are pretty abundant in Alaska, and people (the third element in the ecosystem) are not.
So I’m still hopeful. I hope somehow, someway, someone will get some data for scientists to review. It would really be exciting if the scientists launched a study themselves.
So what do you think about all this?
PS — Don’t worry folks! He doesn’t live in Alaska! 😉