April 1, 2009

Ancient Giant Lions Prowled Northern Hemisphere

Oxford University scientists have identified remains of giant lions in parts of Britain, Europe and North America, from as long as 13,000 years ago, BBC News reported. 

Upon early discovery of the remains, it has been believed the species is that of jaguar or tiger, however DNA analysis proves the remains are that of lions. 

These lions were 25% larger and had longer legs to chase their prey than the species of African lion inhabiting the world today,

Scientific evidence indicates they would have lived alongside animals existing in herds like mammoth, sabertooth tigers, woolly rhino, and giant deer in an icy tundra climate. 

The lions' long legs are a sign that these animals hunted over vast distances, using their legs to assist them in pursuit of their prey, rather than ensnaring its victims like modern-day species. 

A wide range of fossils and other remains were collected from Germany to Siberia and Alaska to Wyoming to undergo DNA analysis by the Oxford team. 

The research was conducted at Oxford University's department of Zoology, under the direction of Dr. Ross Barnett.  His findings reveal very similar comparisons to species of lion today.

"What our genetic evidence shows is that these ancient extinct lions and the lions of today were very closely related," he said. 

Further he added that, "these ancient lions were like a super-sized version of today's lions and, in the Americas, with longer legs adapted for endurance running."

Early man commonly sketched the lions in cave paintings, as witnessed in the pre-historic cave complex at Chauvet in France. 

"Cave art also suggests that they formed prides, although the males in the pictures would not have had manes and they are depicted very realistically," Dr. Barnett asserted. 

German caves include paintings of partial man and lion characters, suggesting that lions may have been adored creatures of worship by ancient humans. 

A product of the Pleistocene Epoch (1.8 million years ago to 10,000 years ago), the remains could be divided into two logical groups: the American Lion of North America, and the Cave Lion of northern Europe, Russia, Alaska and the Yukon.

These ancient cats vanished in a mass extinction about 13,000 years ago.  Understanding the reason for this, Dr. Barnett emphasized, is one of the last big mysteries in science.  He summed up his assumed ideas with this statement: "There are a couple different schools of thought.  It could have been climate change or something to do with humans. Humans could have been killing off their prey or killing the lions themselves."

"The extinction is a big question that remains unresolved," he elaborated. "More research and more advanced genetic analysis may help answer it."


Image 2: The giant cats that roamed the British Isles, as well as Europe and North America, as recently as 13,000 years ago were lions rather than giant jaguars or tigers. (Oxford)


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