You can’t throw a frozen rock in Siberia without hitting the frozen remains of a woolly mammoth. Not only are they everywhere, climate change is melting the permafrost at a rate that makes them easier to find. Many of the corpses are in surprisingly good shape, allowing researchers to study them as if they just died, and take high-quality DNA samples suitable (so they say) for cloning. However, Siberia 20,000 years ago had more than just woolly mammoths, and a Jurassic Tundra Park would be boring with only one species. That's one reason why Siberian scientists are clapping their yak-mittened hands over the verification of what appears to be the best preserved Ice Age animal ever – a cave lion cub from 28,000 years ago. Will Jurassic Tundra Park visitors get to see a real predator-prey attack Ice Age style?
“Sparta is probably the best preserved Ice Age animal ever found, and is more or less undamaged apart from the fur being a bit ruffled. She even had the whiskers preserved. Boris is a bit more damaged, but still pretty good."
Sparta and Boris – the cave lion side has a mating couple and a mixed team for mammoth hunting. A press release from Stockholm University announces the publication of a new study in the journal Quaternary which is the first release of a detailed analysis of the frozen cubs found by mammoth tusk hunters on the banks of the Semyuelyakh River in Siberia a few years ago. Initially thought to be siblings, the new analysis shows they lived 15,000 years apart, with Sparta being the younger cub who roamed the area 28,000 years ago. This new study shows their coats to be very similar to today’s African lion cubs, but with a thick fur undercoat for dealing with the Siberian cold. Unfortunately, it didn’t save two-months-old Sparta and Boris from what killed them.
"Given their preservation they must have been buried very quickly. So maybe they died in a mudslide, or fell into a crack in the permafrost. Permafrost forms large cracks due to seasonal thawing and freezing."
Love Dalén, a professor of evolutionary genetics at the Centre for Palaeogenetics in Stockholm, told CNN tomography scans showed skull damage, dislocation of ribs, and other distortions in their skeletons that pointed to a sudden crushing demise. From tragedy comes triumph -- Dalén said researchers will be able to sequence the DNA of Sparta with the intent of plotting out the evolutionary history of cave lions, their population size and their unique genetic features.
Can they be cloned or even de-extincted? That has been discussed after similar woolly mammoth discoveries, but neither the CNN interview nor the press release address the question. It would be a safe bet to say it’s probably going on already. Dalén points out that climate change and permafrost defrosting has turned Siberia into a lollapalooza of exposed Ice Age animal corpses, with woolly mammoth tusks being the most valuable to hunters – ironically, there’s a controversial market for extinct mammoth ivory ever since elephant ivory became illegal around the world.
This shady black market on the glaringly white Siberian tundra is also turning over the frozen remains of tundra wolves, bears, woolly rhinoceroses, bison, saiga antelopes other Ice Age mammals. It’s only a matter of time before corpses as well preserved as Sparta are found … and only a matter of a little more time before they are cloned or de-extincted – the market for such an exhibit is just too lucrative to resist. Is it dangerous to bring them back? Probably – think of the ancient diseases, viruses and pathogens they may release. Is it right? Has that stopped humanity before? Will it matter what we think?
If only we could ask Sparta and Boris.