One summer’s day in 2015, contractor Yakov Androsov was exploring the Sakha Republic’s remote Siberian landscapes in eastern Russia, on the hunt for mammoth tusks. Little did he know, however, that he would stumble across something that was, at first sight, frankly unbelievable.
But then Siberia is an especially important region for paleontologists. After all, its permafrost has preserved long-dead animals from the Pleistocene era – a period that lasted from around 1.8 million to 11,700 years ago – including mammoths and woolly rhinoceroses.
And the Sakha Republic, one of Russia’s federal subjects, makes up much of Siberia. It’s considered important because of its many natural resources; 99 percent of Russia’s diamonds, for example, are produced there. The newly discovered bones of the extinct, then, will only add to its importance.
One significant find occurred in 2013 when the well-preserved remains of a woolly mammoth were found on an island off the Sakha Republic’s Arctic coast. Interestingly, its skin was in such remarkably good condition that scientists were able to take a complete DNA sample.
So finding animal remains that are tens of thousands of years old is an important and exciting job in this part of the world. What Androsov would find this time around, though, would be something truly special.
Still, his remarkable discovery was only made possible by Mother Nature, who in 2015 decided to flood areas along the Uyandina River. This caused cracks in the permafrost and thus the uncovering of whatever it had been preserving.
And when Andropov spotted two brightly colored remnants jutting out of the ice, he couldn’t quite believe his eyes. A closer look, however, revealed that the remnants’ ears, fur and whiskers all indicated one thing: these were felines.
This was an especially amazing find because these animals’ remains were complete, whereas usually researchers only find fragments in the permafrost. Yes, individual bones, teeth and skulls are par for the course – but not entire bodies.
Later, back at the lab, it was verified that these were cave lions, an extinct feline species that, as the name suggests, lived in caves. The species hasn’t roamed the Earth for thousands of years, and these two are believed to be some 12,000 years old.
The two cubs – nicknamed Uyan and Dina after the river that helped uncover them – were supposedly only a week or two old when they perished. In fact, scientists think they may have been very quickly buried during a landslide.
Unbelievably, the cubs may still have some of their mother’s milk inside their stomachs. Certainly, there was some white liquid evident, and scientists are hoping to confirm exactly what it is in the fall of 2016.
What we do know is that cave lions lived during the Pleistocene era, specifically its middle and latter stages. They lived all along the Eurasian continent, from the British Isles in the west to Siberia in the east.
Why they became extinct, however, remains something of a mystery. After all, cave lions had virtually no predators, and they were, compared with much larger mammoths, less likely to get stuck in swampland. But the two cubs’ discovery could help solve this existential conundrum.
So what happens next? Well, Russian and South Korean scientists are working together to take what they can from Dina. Uyan, however, will be locked away somewhere very cold for safekeeping.
Meanwhile, one Hwang Woo-suk traveled to Siberia as soon as he heard the news of the amazing specimens. As one of the world’s foremost experts in cloning – and someone who’s working on the aforementioned woolly mammoth – he was understandably excited about the prospect of two intact lion cubs.
But the veterinarian’s excitement turned to disappointment when the Russian team told him that he could only take a few samples from Dina. It was certainly a small amount when compared to what he took from the previously discovered mammoth. But why the restriction?
Well, because Dina is so small that local authorities wanted to keep her as intact as possible. This won’t, however, prevent the researcher from attempting to do something truly amazing: clone the little cave lion.
So while Dina is being analyzed, Uyan will also be carefully stored ahead of more advance research being carried out at some point in the future. In fact, researchers may have to wait decades to get their hands on the cub.
Dr. Albert Protopopov, who leads studies of mammoth fauna at Yakutian Academy of Sciences, told The Siberian Times that it would indeed be kept “for the future.” He explained, “The methods of research are constantly being improved, about once a decade there is a mini-revolution in this area. So we will do everything possible to keep this carcass frozen for as long as possible.”
Are humans ready for cave lions to roam the Earth again? Well, even if they are, such a spectacle may be another generation or two away. But who knows – the fluffy descendants of Dina and Uyan could one day walk the frozen landscapes of Siberia.