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Marc Di Duca

South Koreans kick off efforts to clone extinct Siberian cave lions

By The Siberian Times reporter
04 March 2016

Samples taken from cubs frozen in permafrost for at least 12,000 years.

'We managed to take some samples of skin along with the muscle tissue, and we hope that we will find what we want in these samples.' Picture: Vera Salnitskaya

Two infant prehistoric big cats - dating from Pleistocene times - were found in a 'sensational' discovery last year, as disclosed by The Siberian Times. The cubs were dug from their icy grave 'complete with all their body parts: fur, ears, soft tissue and even whiskers', said Dr Albert Protopopov, head of the mammoth fauna studies department of the Yakutian Academy of Sciences.

Now cloning expert Hwang Woo-suk, a South Korean scientist who is already pioneering  research work to bring the extinct woolly mammoth back to life, is in Yakutsk to obtain samples of one of the cave lion cubs. These laboratory pictures show skin and muscle tissue being extracted from the ancient creature's Dina's remains. 

Taking samples


Taking samples


Taking samples

These laboratory pictures show skin and muscle tissue being extracted from the ancient creature's Dina's remains. Pictures: Galina Mozolevskaya/YSIA

Dr Protopopov said: 'Together with the Mammoth Museum, we took samples for cell research.' The museum's experts will study these for the presence of living cells suitable for cloning.

Hwang came to Yakutsk - capital of the Sakha Republic - specifically for this purpose. But there was dispute between the Siberian and Korean scientists over the size of the sample.

The Korean professor wanted a large section, such as part of the skull or a leg but this was opposed by the local experts who are anyway withholding one of the cubs from any research - the better preserved of the pair, called Uyan - confident that more advanced techniques in future years will ensure more is gleaned from it than if research is done now.

Hwang Woo-suk


Taking samples

Cloning expert Hwang Woo-suk, a South Korean scientist who is already pioneering  research work to bring the extinct woolly mammoth back to life, is in Yakutsk to obtain samples of one of the cave lion cubs. Pictures: Yakutsk.ru, Galina Mozolevskaya/YSIA

Dr Protopopov said: 'We intend to keep it for the future. 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.'

He revealed: 'The dispute arose from the fact that the researchers, as always, want to be completely sure and take more tissue, and I can understand them. But the lion is not fully preserved and there are not so many tissues. We have planned other studies, so it is important to preserve the original morphology of the remains. Such disputes are normal in all studies, and in the end we came to a compromise.'

Director of the Mammoth Museum Semyon Grigoriev defended the decision to limit the sample available to the cloning guru. 

'The Koreans are sceptical and unhappy with the samples,' he said. 'They expected to take more, as they did with the mammoth previously. But it will not work with with these little kittens. 

Taking samples


Hwang Woo-suk


Taking samples

'Koreans expected to take more, as they did with the mammoth previously. But it will not work with with these little kittens.' Pictures: Galina Mozolevskaya/YSIA

'You have to understand, the lion cub is very small, so it was not possible to take as much as we would like. In addition, the material is highly degraded, it is partially mummified, but the part that was in the ice, preserved very well. We managed to take some samples of skin along with the muscle tissue, and we hope that we will find what we want in these samples.'

An autopsy of the animal is due to be held later this year. 

The cave lions were found some 650 miles northeast of Yakutsk, in Yakutia, also known as the Sakha Republic, a Siberian region almost as large as India. A sudden summer rise - then fall - in the level of the Uyandina River led to cracks appearing and local worker Yakov Androsov spotted an ice lens with the lion cubs inside. 

Dr Protopopov said last year when he showed the cubs to the media: 'Comparing with modern lion cubs, we think that these two were very small, maybe a week or two old. The eyes were not quite open, they have baby teeth and not all had appeared.'

Frozen cave lions


Frozen cave lions


Frozen lion cub


Frozen lion cubs


Frozen lion cub

Yakut scientists plan to withhold one of the cubs from any research - the better preserved of the pair, called Uyan. Pictures: Vera Salnitskaya

He thinks they may have perished after the lioness hid her cubs in a cave to protect them from the hungry lions. 'Then the landslide covered it and they remained surrounded in permafrost. Also the air intake was blocked, and this helped their preservation.' In summer 2016, researchers are due go back to the site and search for remains of possibly one more cub, or even the lioness. 

Cave lions - Panthera spelaea (Goldfuss) - lived during Middle and Late Pleistocene times on the Eurasian continent, from the British Isles to Chukotka in the extreme east of Russia, and they also roamed Alaska and northwestern Canada.

Research on the two cubs could help to explain why the species died out around 10,000 years ago, since the animal had few predators, was smaller than herbivores, and was not prone to getting bogged down in swamps, as did woolly mammoths and rhinos. One theory is a decline in deer and cave bears, their prey, caused their demise.

Comments (3)

During my way to Altaj what the hack man this is so scary.
TurkoNomad (Rutmish Kagakara), Altai Tavan,Mongolia
15/04/2016 22:15
0
0
Even more - the cave lion (Panthera leo spelaea) was endemic to Europe. The siberian lion was a separate subspecies (Panthera leo vereshchagini - named to honor the legendary mammoth hunter and researcher Nicolai Vereshchagin). And the fact that this is "just" the subspecies should make cloning it much easier - the distance between the woolly mammoth and the asian elephant is ca 6-7 mln years (just like between the chimpanzee and the man!), while here it should not much more than 100 000 years. And we know much more about breeding the lions (we do that since Roman times!) than we do know about elephants.
Paul, Gdynia, Poland
09/03/2016 06:26
7
0
I am sure we will find that the cave lion was a race of Panthera leo, so should be called Pantherea leo spelaea. It is sure to have become extinct due to human impact on prey numbers as well as direct hunting by our ancestors. One thing is certain cave bears were not regular prey of cave lions as suggested above. Just like sloth bears in India today, bears, at least adults, can protect themselves from tigers,the much larger cave bear would have been a formidable competitor to a pride of cave lions.
Nick Hook, Portishead, England
05/03/2016 00:02
19
1
1

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