European Cave Lion
Panthera leo atrox
Restoration of Panthera leo spelaea
Scientific Classification
Kingdom Animalia
Phylum Chordata
Class Mammalia
Order Carnivora
Family Felidae
Genus Panthera
Conservation Status

The European Cave lion (Panthera leo spelaea) is a species of lion that became extinct during the Pleistocene epoch, about 10,000 years ago.


The cave lion is sometimes considered a species in its own right, under the name Panthera spelaea, and at least one authority, basing his conclusion on a comparison of skullshapes, considers the cave lion to be more closely related to the tiger, which would result in the formal name Panthera tigris spelaea. However, recent genetic research shows that among extant felids it was most closely related to the modern lion and that it formed a single population with the Beringian cave lion, 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.

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. 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. 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.


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. P. l. spelaea lived from 370,000 to 10,000 years ago, during the Pleistocene epoch.

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. spelaeapopulation became isolated south of the North American continental ice sheet about 0.34 Mya.


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 (3.9 ft) and a head-body length of 2.1 m (6.9 ft) without the tail. 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). 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.


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, which would have been killed by a powerful bite from the sharp teeth. 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. There was a suggestion of a shift in dietary preferences subsequent to the disappearance of the cave hyena. The last cave lions seem to have focused on reindeer, up to the brink of local extinction or extirpation of both species.


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


The cave lion received its common name because large quantities of its remains are found in caves. It had a wide habitat tolerance, but probably preferred conifer forests and grasslands, 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.


In October 2015 two frozen cave lion cubs, estimated to be at least 10,000 years old, were discovered in Yakutia, Siberia in permafrost. Research on the specimens, named Uyan and Dina, indicated the cubs were likely barely a week old at the time of their deaths, as their baby teeth had not fully erupted. Further evidence shows the cubs were, like modern lions, hidden at a den site until they were old enough to join the pride. Researchers think that the cubs were trapped and killed by a landslide, and that without air, the cubs were preserved in such good condition. A second expedition to the site where the cubs were found is planned for 2016, in hopes of finding either the remains of a third cub or possibly the cubs' mother.


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