Facts and Figures About the Extinct Eurasian Cave Lion

How much do you know about one of the world's largest species of lion?

Illustration of a cave lion attacking a stag
Illustration of a cave lion attacking a stag.

Heinrich Harder / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The Eurasian cave lion (Panthera spelaea) is a species of lion that went extinct around 12,000 years ago. It was one of the largest species of a lion to have ever lived. Only its North American cousin, the extinct American lion (Panthera atrox), was bigger. Scientists believe the Eurasian cave lion was as much as 10% larger than the modern lion (Panthera leo). It was often depicted in cave paintings as having some kind of collar fluff and possibly stripes.

Eurasian Cave Lion Basics

  • Scientific Name: Panthera leo spelaea
  • Habitat: Woodlands and mountains of Eurasia
  • Historical Period: Middle to late Pleistocene (approximately 700,000-12,000 years ago)
  • Size and Weight: Up to 7 feet long (excluding the tail) and 700-800 pounds
  • Diet: Meat
  • Distinguishing Characteristics: Large size; powerful limbs; possibly manes and stripes

Where Did It Live?

One of the most ferocious predators of the late Pleistocene epoch, the Eurasian cave lion was a plus-sized cat that roamed a vast expanse of territory in Eurasia, Alaska, and part of northwestern Canada. It feasted on a wide array of mammalian megafauna, including prehistoric horses and prehistoric elephants.

Why Is It Called a Cave Lion?

The Eurasian 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. Eurasian cave lions preyed opportunistically on hibernating cave bears, which must have seemed like a good idea until their intended victims woke up.

Why Did It Go Extinct?

As is the case with many prehistoric predators, it's unclear why the Eurasian cave lion vanished off the face of the Earth about 12,000 years ago. The cave lion population might have suffered due to the severe reduction of species it preyed upon. As the climate warmed, the cave lion’s habitat of wide-open spaces was shrinking as forest areas increased, putting severe pressure on the species. Human migration into Europe could also have played a role, as they would likely have been competing with lions for the same prey.   

Noteworthy Discoveries

In 2015, researchers in Siberia made the astonishing discovery of two frozen Eurasian cave lion cubs. The cubs were determined to be up to 55,000 years old and were named Uyan and Dina. Another cub was discovered in 2017 in the same area of Siberia; it was about 8 weeks old when it died, and it is perfectly preserved. In 2018, a fourth cave lion cub was discovered in the Siberian permafrost, this one estimated to be about 30,000 years old. The cub’s body was well preserved with muscles and internal organs, including its heart, brain, and lungs, still intact. While it's not uncommon for explorers to stumble across quick-frozen woolly mammoths, these are the first instances of prehistoric cats being found in permafrost. It may be possible to recover fragments of DNA from the cave cubs' soft tissues to clone them, and that could one day facilitate the de-extinction of Panthera spelaea.