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Panthera leo spelaea

Panthera leo spelaea or P. spelaea,[note 1] commonly known as the European or Eurasian cave lion, is an extinct subspecies of lion. It is known from fossils and many examples of prehistoric art.


Cave lions, Chamber of Felines, Lascaux caves

The cave lion is sometimes considered a species in its own right, under the name Panthera spelaea,[2] 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.[3] However, recent genetic research shows that among extant felids it was most closely related to the modern lion[4][5] and that it formed a single population with the Beringian cave lion,[5] which has been sometimes considered to represent a distinct form. Therefore, the cave lion ranged from Europe to Alaska over the Bering land bridge until the late Pleistocene. However, it is still not clear whether it should be considered a subspecies of the lion or rather a closely related species.[5][note 1]

Analysis of skulls and mandibles of a lion that inhabited Yakutia (Russia), Alaska (USA), and the Yukon Territory (Canada) during the Pleistocene epoch suggested that it was a new subspecies different from the other prehistoric lions, Panthera leo vereshchagini, known as the East Siberian- or Beringian cave lion.[6] It differed from Panthera leo spelaea by its larger size and from the American lion (Panthera leo atrox) by its smaller size and by skull proportions.[6][7] However, recent genetic research, using ancient DNA from Beringian lions found no evidence for separating Panthera leo vereshchagini from the European cave lion; indeed, DNA signatures from lions from Europe and Alaska were indistinguishable, suggesting one large panmictic population.[1]


Skull - MHNT

The cave lion (Panthera leo spelea) evolved from the earlier Panthera leo fossilis, which first appeared in Europe about 700,000 years ago. Genetic evidence indicates this lineage was isolated from extant lions after its dispersal to Europe.[4] P. l. spelaea lived from 370,000 to 10,000 years ago, during the Pleistocene epoch. Apparently, it became extinct about 12,500 C-14 years ago,[5] as the Würm glaciation receded.

Mitochondrial DNA sequence data from fossil remains show the American lion (P. l. atrox) represents a sister lineage to P. l. spelaea, and likely arose when an early P. l. spelaea population became isolated south of the North American continental ice sheet about 0.34 Mya.[5]


Replica of the cave lions in the Chauvet Cave, France

This subspecies was one of the largest lions. The skeleton of an adult male, which was found in 1985 near Siegsdorf (Germany), had a shoulder height of around 1.2 m (4 ft) and a head-body length of 2.1 m (7 ft) without the tail.[citation needed] This is similar to the size of a very large modern lion. The size of this male has been exceeded by other specimens of this subspecies. Therefore, this cat may have been around 8%-10% bigger than modern lions and smaller than the earlier cave lion subspecies Panthera leo fossilis or the relatively larger American lion (Panthera leo atrox).[8] The cave lion is known from Paleolithic cave paintings, ivory carvings, and clay figurines. These representations indicate cave lions had rounded, protruding ears, tufted tails, possibly faint tiger-like stripes, and at least some had a "ruff" or primitive mane around their necks, possibly indicating males. Other archaeological artifacts indicate they were featured in Paleolithic religious rituals.


Cave lion with a reindeer, by Heinrich Harder

These active carnivores probably preyed upon the large herbivorous animals of their time, including horses, deer, reindeer, bison and even injured old or young mammoths.[9] Some paintings of them in caves show several hunting together, which suggests the hunting strategy of contemporary lionesses. Isotopic analyses of bone collagen samples extracted from fossils suggest reindeer and cave bear cubs were prominent in the diets of northwestern European cave lions.[10][11] There was a suggestion of a shift in dietary preferences subsequent to the disappearance of the cave hyena.[11] The last cave lions seem to have focused on reindeer, up to the brink of local extinction or extirpation of both species.[11]

Small prey was usually brought down with a blow of the front paw and then held down with both front feet. The animal was finally killed by a powerful bite from the sharp teeth,[12] at the back of the neck, in the region of the throat and even in the chest. A cave lion usually could not run as fast as its prey, but could pounce on it from behind or run up next to it and bring it down with the paws. In this manner a running animal's balance could very easily be disturbed.

It was most likely the most common large predator (after the cave hyena) in plains ecosystems.[citation needed] Its extinction may have been related to the Quaternary extinction event, which wiped out most of the megafauna prey in those regions.[citation needed] Cave paintings and remains found in the refuse piles of ancient camp sites indicate they were hunted by early humans, which also may have contributed to their demise.[citation needed]


Cave lions and other Ice Age fauna in Northern Spain, by Mauricio Antón

Cave lions were widespread in parts of Europe, Asia and northwestern North America, from Great Britain, Germany and Spain [13] all the way across the Bering Strait to the Yukon Territory, and from Siberia to Turkistan.[14]

The cave lion received its common name because large quantities of its remains are found in caves,[9] but it is doubtful whether they lived in them (one theory being that lion bones may have been collected there ex post facto by packrats that are obsessive hoarders of bright objects, even useless ones).[citation needed] It had a wide habitat tolerance, but probably preferred conifer forests and grasslands,[15] where medium-sized to large herbivores occurred. Fossil footprints of lions, which were found together with those of reindeer, demonstrate the lions once occurred even in subpolar climates. The presence of fully articulated adult cave lion skeletons, deep in cave bear dens, indicates these lions may have occasionally entered dens to prey on hibernating cave bears, with some dying in the attempt.[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c The authors of the most recent genetic study, Barnett et al.,[1] classify the Eurasian cave lion as the subspecies P. l. spelaea. However, as of 2014, it is as commonly accorded full species status as P. spelaea in the scientific literature, according to Google Scholar (see talk page).


  1. ^ a b Barnett, Ross; Shapiro, Beth; Barnes, Ian; Yo, Simon Y.W.; Burger, Joachim; Yamaguchi, Nobuyuki; Higham, Thomas F.G.; Wheeler, H.Todd et al. (April 2009). "Phylogeography of lions (Panthera leo ssp.) reveals three distinct taxa and a late Pleistocene reduction in genetic diversity". Molecular Ecology 18 (8): 1668–1677. doi:10.1111/j.1365-294X.2009.04134.x. PMID 19302360. Retrieved 2011-11-23. 
  2. ^ Christiansen, Per (December 2008): "Phylogeny of the great cats (Felidae: Pantherinae), and the influence of fossil taxa and missing characters" Cladistics 24.6:977-992(16)
  3. ^ Groiss, J. Th. (1996): "Der Höhlentiger Panthera tigris spelaea (Goldfuss)". Neues Jahrbuch für Geologie und Paläontologie 7 : 399–414.
  4. ^ a b Burger, Joachim; Rosendahl, W.; Loreille, O.; Hemmer, H.; Eriksson, T.; Götherström, A.; Hiller, J.; Collins, M. J.; Wess, T.; Alt, K. W. (March 2004). "Molecular phylogeny of the extinct cave lion Panthera leo spelaea". [[Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution|]] 30 (3): 841–849. doi:10.1016/j.ympev.2003.07.020. PMID 15012963. Retrieved 2011-12-17. 
  5. ^ a b c d e Barnett, Ross; Shapiro, Beth; Barnes, Ian; Yo, Simon Y.W.; Burger, Joachim; Yamaguchi, Nobuyuki; Higham, Thomas F.G.; Wheeler, H.Todd et al. (April 2009). "Phylogeography of lions (Panthera leo ssp.) reveals three distinct taxa and a late Pleistocene reduction in genetic diversity". Molecular Ecology 18 (8): 1668–1677. doi:10.1111/j.1365-294X.2009.04134.x. PMID 19302360. Retrieved 2011-11-23. 
  6. ^ a b Burger, Joachim et al.; Rosendahl, Wilfried; Loreille, Odile; Hemmer, Helmut; Eriksson, Torsten; Götherström, Anders; Hiller, Jennifer; Collins, Matthew J.; Wess, Timothy; Alt, Kurt W. (March 2004). "Molecular phylogeny of the extinct cave lion Panthera leo spelaea" (PDF). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 30 (3): 841–849. doi:10.1016/j.ympev.2003.07.020. PMID 15012963. Retrieved 2007-09-20. 
  7. ^ Baryshnikov, G.F., Boeskorov, G., 2001. The Pleistocene cave lion, Panthera spelaea (Carnivora, Felidae) from Yakutia, Russia. Cranium 18, 7–24.
  8. ^ W. v. Koenigswald: Lebendige Eiszeit. Theiss-Verlag, 2002. ISBN 3-8062-1734-3
  9. ^ a b Arduini, P. & Teruzzi, G. 1993. The MacDonald encyclopedia of fossils. Little, Brown and Company, London. 320pp.
  10. ^ Curry, A. (2011-11-21). "Dissecting the Cave Lion Diet". Science Now. AAAS. Retrieved 2011-11-24. 
  11. ^ a b c Bocherens, H.; Drucker, D. G.; Bonjean, D.; Bridault, A.; Conard, N. J.; Cupillard, C.; Germonpré, M.; Höneisen, M.; Münzel, S. C.; Napieral, H.; Patou-Mathis, M.; Stephan, E.; Uerpmann, H.-P.; Ziegler, R. (2011-12-06). "Isotopic evidence for dietary ecology of cave lion (Panthera spelaea) in North-Western Europe: Prey choice, competition and implications for extinction". Quaternary International 245 (2): 249–261. Bibcode:2011QuInt.245..249B. doi:10.1016/j.quaint.2011.02.023. Retrieved 2011-11-24. 
  12. ^ Lessem, D. 1999. Dinosaurs to dodos. An encyclopedia of extinct animals. Scholastic, New York. 122pp.
  13. ^ (Arduini & Teruzzi, 1993)
  14. ^ 'Supersize' lions roamed Britain BBC News 1 April 2009
  15. ^ Hublin, J.-J. 1984. The Hamlyn encyclopedia of prehistoric animals. Hamlyn, London. 318pp.


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