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Last updated on April 24, 2014 at 21:24 EDT

Panthera leo spelaea

Commonly known as the Eurasian cave lion or the European cave lion, Panthera leo spelaea is an extinct subspecies of lion. It is thought to have lived during the Pleistocene epoch, and may have lived in the Balkans in southeastern Europe until 2,000 years ago. The range of this cave lion would have included northwestern North America, Asia, and areas of Europe and would have extended from Germany, Spain, and Great Britain to the Yukon Territory. Its range also extended from Turkistan to Siberia. Studies conducted on skulls and mandibles found in Alaska, the Yukon Territory, and Yakutia suggested that a separate subspecies of cave lion, called Panthera leo vereshchagini, existed in the same range as the Eurasian cave lion, but later studies showed that these were just small individuals belonging to the Eurasian cave lion subspecies.

The Eurasian cave lion is sometimes classified as a distinct species known as Panthera spelaea. One expert asserts that by studying the skull shapes of the subspecies and the tiger, it would be better classified as the subspecies Panthera tigris spelaea. Despite this, the most recent studies have shown that it was closely related to extinct species of lions, but experts cannot agree whether it is a subspecies or a distinct species.

The Eurasian cave lion was large, with one German individual measuring seven feet and about four feet in height at the shoulder. It is estimated to have weighed between 160 and 350 pounds. Other cave lions have been found to grow larger, but this size is about the same size as a large modern lion. This cave lion appeared in cave paintings, clay figurines, and ivory carvings and from these examples, experts can see what the Eurasian lion would have looked like. Its ears were rounded and it had a tufted tail. Some pictures showed individuals with small manes, indicating that males would have grown manes just like modern lions, and some show faded stripes on the lions’ bodies.

Cave lions received their common name because of where they were thought to live. However, some experts suggest that cave lions did not actually reside in caves, but their bones were placed there by rodents that hoard shiny objects, called packrats. It inhabited a large array of habitats, but most likely preferred grasslands and conifer forests where it could hunt for medium to large sized prey. Footprints have been found alongside those of reindeer, and some full skeletons have been found in cave bear dens, suggesting that these lions hunted cave bears as well.

It is thought that the main prey of the Eurasian cave lion would have been larger herbivorous creatures, like bison, deer, horses, and even old, young, or injured mammoths. Cave paintings have shown these lions hunting in groups, suggesting a similar hunting style to modern lions. Northwestern European cave lions most likely preyed upon young cave bears and reindeer. Some experts assert that the Eurasian cave lion caused the disappearance of the cave hyena, when the lion’s primary diet shifted. It is thought that the Eurasian cave lion may have disappeared due to hunting by humans, or during the Quaternary extinction event, which eradicated many species that the lion preyed upon.

Image Caption: Fossil skull of a cave lion, in the Brno museum Anthropos. Credit: HTO/Wikipedia

Panthera leo spelaea