Earlier this week, Russia unveiled the extraordinarily well-preserved remains of a cave lion cub, raising new hopes of bringing this now-extinct subspecies back to life. It’s very likely that the cub died sometimes between 20,000 and 50,000 years ago, during the Pleistocene Ice Age, but tests will give experts a more accurate time of death.
The remains were found buried in the permafrost on the bank of the Tirekhtykh River in the Abyisky district of Yakutia, Russia, by local man Boris Berezhnov.
“It is a perfectly preserved lion cub, all the limbs have survived,” palaeontologist Albert Protopopov told The Siberian Times. “There are no traces of external injuries on the skin.”
The as-yet-unnamed cub is 45 centimeters (17.7 inches) long and weighs 4 kilograms (8.8 pounds). The young cat has matted grey fur and its head rests on its paw. Look closely and you can see the details on its face.
It was probably six to eight weeks old when it died but experts plan to analyze the amino acids in its teeth to get a more accurate age.
This find comes two years after cave lion cubs, Uyan and Dina, were discovered in the Siberian permafrost. Frozen and intact, they were the only remains of their species to be found in such a well-preserved condition – until now.
Olga Potapova, curator at the Mammoth Site of Hot Springs in South Dakota and co-researcher of the study, the week-old cubs were “squished to death”, Live Science reported at the time.
The Siberian permafrost has kept the remains of this new lion cub perfectly intact for tens of thousands of years. So well intact, in fact, that there has been talk of the possibility of cloning.
Ethics may be the biggest hurdle to Jurassic Park-like resurrection. Scientists have already successfully cloned dead animals in the past. (Admittedly, a 50,000-year-old lion would be an entirely new level of challenge to a 16-year-dead mouse and recently deceased pet dog.)
But is it morally right to bring an extinct animal back to life? Conservationists warn it could change the modern eco-system and say we would be better off focusing on protecting animals that are alive and endangered, rather than bringing an extinct species back to life.
So it looks like we might have to wait some time to catch a glimpse of a living, breathing cave lion. In the meantime, Protopopov and his colleagues will perform tests on the cub to try to determine its age, sex, and cause of death.