This Lion Was So Big It Hunted Bears

Written by Shaunice Lewis
Updated: May 26, 2022
© Popova Valeriya/Shutterstock.com
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The European cave lion (Panthera spelaea), also known as the Eurasian cave lion and steppe lion was an ancient lion belonging to the extinct Panthera genus. This lion became extinct over 13,000 years ago during the Pleistocene period.

When the lion skull fossil was first found, some scientists regarded the species as a subspecies of modern lions and gave it a new term, Panthera leo spelaea, while other scientists believed that the cave lion was more closely related to modern lions. They believed this because their skull shapes were the same, therefore they offered an alternative scientific name for the lion, the Panthera tigris spelaea. Read on to learn more about these large ancient lions.

Diet – What Did the European Cave Lion Eat?

As the name suggests, the European Cave Lion is an ancient type of lion. It is an extinct species of the Panthera genus that used to prey on large animals like reindeer, bison, bears, and even mammoths! Sometimes these European cave lions are called by other names like Eurasian cave lions and steppe lions. The European Cave Lion belongs to the class of mammal, the family Felidae, as well as the Panthera genus. Since these mammals are extinct, there are no living European cave lions left in the world. The species became extinct in the late Pleistocene period, about 13,000 years ago.

Cave Lion
A statue of a cave lion in Archeopark, in the city of Khanty-Mansiysk. The cave lion was an apex predator that even took on cave bears.

©Evgeni Romanov/Shutterstock.com

Where Did European Cave Lions Live?

The Panthera Leo spelaea lived throughout several parts of the European continent in places like Great Britain, the Iberian Peninsula, Central Europe, Southeast Europe, and the plains of East Europe. They were also found in Russia, Turkistan, and a few other regions including Canada and Alaska.

Even though their name might suggest that these animals dwelled in caves, that isn’t exactly the case. European cave lions were believed to be found near the habitats of medium to large-sized herbivores like bears, which happened to reside in dens within the caves. Since European cave lions loved to hunt them and could often be found there, they were deemed “cave” lions. The actual natural habit of cave lions were coniferous forests and grasslands.

Just like modern lions, the European Cave Lion was not a solitary creature but instead lived in groups. Forming large groups allowed these animals to be more efficient when it came to hunting the large types of animals that they did. Again, these lions hunted animals like deer, the cave hyena, reindeer, and bears. Although the exact lifespan of these European cave lions is unknown, modern lions usually live anywhere between 8-15 years. In captivity, modern lions can live for more than 25 years.

What Were the European Cave Lions’ Mating Patterns?

There is no exact information on the breeding pattern of the European Cave Lion (Panthera spelaea), but it is believed that the extinct lions used similar mating patterns to modern-day lions. Modern lions follow the polygyny mating system in which the male lions will mate with more than one of the female lions. Unlike other species, the males of the pride generally do not fight with other males over the females. The male lion that reaches the female first in the heat cycle has more chances to mate.

The male lion usually controls the reproduction of the female lions and rules over the pride. When there is competition between the male lions it can lead to infanticide in some cases. The female lions will usually mate throughout the year and the breeding peaks during the rainy season. A female lion will become sexually mature at four years of age while the male lion usually takes around five or six years. The gestation period lasts for around 3.5 to four months and one female lion will give birth to around six cubs at once. It is believed that the European Cave Lion would give birth to anywhere from one to six cubs. Once the lion cubs reached five to seven months in age, they would be released by the parents.

How Did European Cave Lions Communicate?

Just like the modern-day lion, the European Cave Lion is believed to have communicated using the same methods. In general, cats are very territorial and the males will often mark their territory with their urine. This gives off a warning to others that are in the area not to come closer. You could tell which ancient cave lions were males by their manes, just like the modern lion, so it was easy to determine the sex of an approaching lion. However, the most common way of communication was through the lion’s roar. A roar could be interpreted as a sign of aggression and dominance over their enemies or as a way of social bonding. Male lions possess louder and deeper roars when compared to female lions.

Description and Size

It is said that European cave lions were one of the fastest animals during the Pleistocene period and had average speeds of around 30 mph (48 kph). With the level of stamina and strength it had, it was able to hunt very large animals like bears. As far as their size goes, they were quite big in comparison to several modern-day wild cats. Their average body length would have been around 6.11 ft (210 cm) not including the tail. The average cave lion’s height was around 3.11 ft (120 cm). For context, this is twice the size of striped hyenas and three times the size of clouded leopards. The average weight of a cave lion was anywhere from 440-771 lb (200-350 kg).

How Dangerous Were European Cave Lions?

European cave lions were incredibly dangerous when they were alive. Like modern-day lions, European cave lions were fierce hunters. They were very aggressive in nature and had very strong teeth. The force of a European cave lion’s bite was bone-crushing at about 1800 lb (816 kg), which is almost twice the force of a lion’s today! When they were alive their prey of choice were reindeer, giant mammoths, and bears. The European cave lion was brave and bold enough to enter the dens of cave bears in order to hunt them as prey. This is where they got the name cave lions. If European cave lions had never gone extinct, they’d be considered one of the most dangerous animals of contemporary times.

Why Did the European Cave Lion Go Extinct?

As is the case with many predators that lived during prehistoric times, it’s unclear exactly why the European Cave Lion went extinct. The cave lion population may have suffered due to the severe reduction of the species that the animals would prey upon. Also, as the climate warmed, the cave lion’s natural habit of wide-open spaces (grasslands) was rapidly shrinking as the forest areas increased. This put severe pressure on the species. Human migration into Europe could have also played a role in the species’ extinction, as they would have been competing with the lions for the same types of prey.

The European Cave Lion’s Threats and Predators

European cave lions were the largest ever feline predator! They are known to have been apex predators, meaning they had no natural predators and were at the top of the food chain.

Recent Discoveries

There were some recent discoveries made involving European cave lions. In 2015, researchers in Siberia made an astonishing discovery of two frozen European Cave Lion cubs. The cubs were said to be up to 55,000 years old and were named Uyan and Dina. Then, in 2017 another cub was discovered in the same area in Siberia. It was determined that the cub was about 8 weeks old when it died and was perfectly preserved.

Later, in 2018 a fourth cub was discovered in the Siberian permafrost and this one was said to be 30,000 years old. The cub’s body was very well preserved and its muscles and internal organs including the brain, heart, and lungs were still intact. While it is not that uncommon for explorers to find quick-frozen woolly mammoths, these cave lions were the first instances of prehistoric cats being found in permafrost. It may even be possible to recover fragments of DNA from the cave lion cubs’ soft tissues and then clone them, and that could one day facilitate the de-extinction of Panthera spelaea.

Cave Lion
The real remains of a Cave lion cub (Panthera spelaea) of the ice age.

©Tarakanbix/Shutterstock.com

Similar Animals to the European Cave Lion

The European cave lion is a member of the Panthera genus. Similar animals that are also a part of this genus include:

  • Lion—The lion is one of the largest felines in the world today, second only to the Siberian Tiger.
  • Tiger—These are solitary cats that have their own territory and are one of the world’s apex predators.
  • Jaguar—The jaguar is the largest feline on the American continent.
  • Leopard—The leopard is a medium-sized wildcat that is found natively across sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia.


The Featured Image

Cave Lion
Panthera leo spelaea or P. spelaea, commonly known as European or Eurasian cave lion in public park near State Darwin Museum.
© Popova Valeriya/Shutterstock.com

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About the Author

Freelance writer specializing in natural health and wellness.

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

When was the European cave lion alive?

The European cave lion lived during the Pleistocene period, about 13,000 years ago.

How big was the European cave lion?

The European cave lion is very big when compared to modern wild cats in the same genus. The average body length was 6.11 ft (210 cm) without the tail, while the average height was 3.11 ft (120 cm). The average weight was around 440-771 lb (200-350 kg).

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