Facts and Figures About the Cave Lion, Panthera Leo Spelaea

Cave Lion illustration
 Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The cave lion is a subspecies of lion that went extinct around 12,400 years ago. It was one of the largest subspecies of a lion to have ever lived. Scientists believes it was as much as ten percent larger than modern lions. It's often depicted in cave paintings as having some kind of collar fluff and possibly stripes.

Cave Lion Basics

  • Scientific Name:  Panthera leo spelaea
  • Habitat: Woodlands and mountains of Eurasia
  • Historical Period: Late Pleistocene-Modern (500,000-2,000 years ago)
  • Size and Weight: Up to 7-8 feet long and 700-800 pounds
  • Diet: Meat
  • Distinguishing Characteristics: Large size; powerful limbs; possibly manes and stripes

About the Cave Lion (Panthera Leo Spelaea)

One of the most feared predators of the late Pleistocene epoch, the Cave Lion (Panthera leo spelaea) is technically classified as a subspecies of Panthera leo, the modern lion. This was discovered by a genetic sequencing of the cave lion's fossil remains. Essentially, this was a plus-sized cat that roamed the vast expanse of Eurasia. It feasted on a wide array of mammalian megafauna including prehistoric horses and prehistoric elephants.

The cave lion was also a voracious predator of the cave bear, Ursus spelaeus; in fact, this cat received its name not because it lived in caves, but because numerous intact skeletons have been found in Cave Bear habitats.

Cave lions preyed opportunistically on hibernating cave bears, which must have seemed like a good idea until their intended victims woke up! See an analysis of a battle between a den of sleepy cave bears and a pack of hungry cave lions, and also visit a slideshow of recently extinct lions and tigers.

Cave Lion Extinction

As is the case with many prehistoric predators, it's unclear why the cave lion vanished off the face of the earth about 2,000 years ago. It's possible that it was hunted to extinction by the early human settlers of Eurasia, who would have had a vested interest in banding together and eliminating any cave lions in the immediate vicinity. These same humans regarded the cave lion with reverence and awe, as evidenced by numerous cave paintings. But it's more likely that the cave lion succumbed to a combination of climate change and the disappearance of its usual prey; after all, small bands of Homo sapiens could more easily over-hunt prehistoric deer, pigs and another mammalian megafauna than these huge, fanged predators.

In October 2015, researchers in Siberia made an astonishing discovery: a group of frozen cave lion kittens, dating to about 10,000 B.C. One of them still had its fur intact. While it's not uncommon for explorers to stumble across quick-frozen wooly mammoths, this is the first time a prehistoric cat has been found in permafrost. It opens up entirely new avenues of investigation into life during the late Pleistocene epoch: for instance, laboratory technicians may be able to analyze the mother's milk recently ingested by the kittens and thus discern their mother's diet.

It also may be possible to recover fragments of DNA from the cave kittens' soft tissues, which could, conceivably, one day facilitate the "de-extinction" of Panthera leo spelaea.

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Strauss, Bob. "Facts and Figures About the Cave Lion, Panthera Leo Spelaea." ThoughtCo, Apr. 8, 2018, thoughtco.com/cave-lion-1093066. Strauss, Bob. (2018, April 8). Facts and Figures About the Cave Lion, Panthera Leo Spelaea. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/cave-lion-1093066 Strauss, Bob. "Facts and Figures About the Cave Lion, Panthera Leo Spelaea." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/cave-lion-1093066 (accessed May 27, 2018).