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What Is a Cave Lion?

By John Markley
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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A cave lion is an animal from one of several now-extinct species or subspecies of large felines. All cave lions are members of the genus Panthera, which also includes modern lions as well as tigers, panthers, and leopards. Three subspecies, the Beringian cave lion and the Early Middle Pleistocene and Upper Pleistocene European cave lions, are closely related subspecies of the modern lion, Panthera leo. The fourth type, the American cave lion, was originally thought to be another lion subspecies but was subsequently identified as a distinct species.

Cave lions lived during the Pleistocene era, a time period that began 2,588,000 years ago and ended 11,700 years ago. It was a glacial age, or ice age, a period of low global temperatures in which large ice sheets formed at the Earth's poles and repeatedly advanced and retreated with changes in temperature. Cave lions received their name because their fossils are frequently discovered in caves, but caves are not thought to have been their usual dwelling places. Instead, scientists believe that they generally lived in grasslands and coniferous forests where they hunted prey such as horses, deer, and bison. In some cases they may have hunted bears and woolly mammoths as well.

The earliest type is the Early Middle Pleistocene European cave lion, or Panthera leo fossilis. The oldest known fossil of this subspecies is about 700,000 years old, though there are very similar fossils in Africa 1,000,000 years older. Panthera leo fossilis was significantly larger than lions today.

Its successor was Panthera leo spelaea, also called the Upper Pleistocene European cave lion or Eurasian cave lion. This subspecies species arose around 370,000 years ago and is thought to have died out about 12,000 to 14,000 years ago, though there is some evidence suggesting pockets of them surviving until only a few thousand years in the past. Its habitat spanned much of northern Eurasia, from the Iberian peninsula and the British Isles in the West to Siberia and the coasts of the Pacific Ocean in the East.

Panthera leo spelaea was smaller than its predecessor, though still bigger than the average modern lion. This subspecies was the subject of cave paintings, carvings, and sculptures created by Paleolithic humans, which portray them with fur resembling a smaller version of the manes of male lions today. Some paintings also portray them hunting in groups, which is also a characteristic of modern lions but is otherwise rare among felines.

A closely related subspecies was the Beringean cave lion, or Panthera leo vereshchagini. These animals inhabited what is now Alaska, northern Canada, and Northeastern Russia. They are somewhat larger than their European cousins but are very similar genetically and likely interbred to a great extent.

Panthera atrox,the American lion, is the only form of cave lion that is actually a separate species from modern lions. It was a huge animal, even bigger than Panthera leo fossilis and about 25% bigger than a modern lion. Its habitat covered most of the Western Americas, from stretching from Alaska to as far south as Peru. Like other cave lions, it prayed on large and medium-sized herbivores.

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