Extinction chronology of the cave lion Panthera spelaea


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January 2011


The cave lion, Panthera spelaea, was widespread across northern Eurasia and Alaska/Yukon during the Late Pleistocene. Both morphology and DNA indicate an animal distinct from modern lions (probably at the species level) so that its disappearance in the Late Pleistocene should be treated as a true extinction. New AMS radiocarbon dates directly on cave lion from across its range, together with published dates from other studies – totalling 111 dates – indicate extinction across Eurasia in the interval ca. 14–14.5 cal ka BP, and in Alaska/Yukon about a thousand years later. It is likely that its extinction occurred directly or indirectly in response to the climatic warming that occurred ca. 14.7 cal ka BP at the onset of Greenland Interstadial 1, accompanied by a spread of shrubs and trees and reduction in open habitats. Possibly there was also a concomitant reduction in abundance of available prey, although most of its probable prey species survived substantially later. At present it is unclear whether human expansion in the Lateglacial might have played a role in cave lion extinction. Gaps in the temporal pattern of dates suggest earlier temporary contractions of range, ca. 40–35 cal ka BP in Siberia (during MIS 3) and ca. 25–20 cal ka BP in Europe (during the ‘Last Glacial Maximum’), but further dates are required to corroborate these. The Holocene expansion of modern lion (Panthera leo) into south-west Asia and south-east Europe re-occupied part of the former range of P. spelaea, but the Late Pleistocene temporal and geographical relationships of the two species are unknown.

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Quaternary Science Reviews, Vol. 30, no. 17-18 (2011).