What Were Cave Lions, The 12-Foot-Long Top Ice Age Predator?

Written by Abdulmumin Akinde
Updated: June 15, 2022
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Known by many names, including the Eurasian Cave Lion and the European Cave Lion, Panthera leo spelaea (or P. spelaea) is a species of large cats that lived from about 370,000 to 10,000 years ago. Although now extinct, fossil evidence and drawings of the cave lion in multiple prehistoric artworks depicted it as a large cat (a lot larger than present-day lions) with rounded protruding ears and a tufted tail. The species is named after its numerous depictions in cave drawings. However, despite their name, they most likely never lived in caves. 

Description and Size

The cave lion is one of the largest cats to have ever existed. Based on the average size of various fossil specimens of cave lions that have been unearthed, the average size of cave lions is estimated to have been about 5 feet, while it measured about 11.5 feet in length. Cave lions may have had an average body weight of about 400 kilograms (882lbs). 

The cave lion is believed to be the largest cat to have ever existed. It is larger than modern lions by up to 33% and is believed to be larger than many of the large extinct cat species such as the Siberian tiger. 

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In addition to their discovered fossils, there are also many depictions of cave lions in prehistoric cave paintings and clay figurines, giving us a fairly good picture of how they looked. Cave lions might have had rounded protruding ears with long tufted tails. 

Unlike modern lions, cave lions did not have a mane. However, they had thick fur similar to that of the modern Siberian tiger. They might have also had faint tiger-like stripes with the color of their upper body likely varying from ochre-tinted gray to dark ochre brown. The rest of their body most likely had a light brownish color. 

Like the formidable predators they were, cave lions had 20 sharp, retractable claws on each foot. The fossils of a canine tooth from this species which was unearthed in Alaska, measured about 5-inches in length. The cave lion must have had bone-crushing teeth set with a bite force of more than 1800 pounds. This is twice the bite strength of a modern lion. Their build also indicates that they were fast animals and might have reached running speeds of up to 30 miles. 

Artist's rendering of two European cave lions next to a dead reindeer in the snow

Cave lions were nearly 4 feet tall at the shoulder, and from the tip of their nose to the end of their back, excluding their tail, they were nearly 7 feet long.

©Mauricio Antón, CC BY 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons – License

Diet: What Did Cave Lions Eat?

So what did cave lions eat? Scientists believe that, like their modern relatives, cave lions were active carnivores. They must have preyed on large herbivores that existed alongside them, such as deer, horses, bison, and boars

In many cave paintings, they’re depicted as group hunters, similar to the hunting strategy of modern lionesses. They must have hunted small prey as well, usually taking them out with a blow of their powerful front paw and holding them down with their front feet. 

Cave lions most likely killed their prey with a powerful bite to the back of the neck, throat, or chest. Although they could run fast, most of their prey could outrun them, which means they most likely hunted through stealth and ambush. 

Habitat: When and Where It Lived

Eurasian cave lions are among the most ferocious predators that dominated the late Pleistocene epoch. They are believed to have lived between 370,000 to 10,000 years ago (during the Pleistocene epoch). These large cats roamed a vast territory in Eurasia, Alaska, and some parts of northwestern Canada. The cave lion had a wide habitat tolerance, but they most likely preferred grasslands and conifer forests. 

Threats and Predators

Thanks to their impressive speed, agility, and strength, cave lions were top predators in their time. They hunted ice age deer, bison, and similar animals. Because many intact fossil remains have been found in cave bear habitats, P. spelaea is believed to have opportunistically preyed on hibernating cave bears. However, many of their encounters didn’t always end in the lion’s favor, as indicated by many remains found in these caves. Some archeological artifacts seem to suggest that the species was featured in human religious rituals in the Paleolithic era and were most likely hunted by humans. 

Discoveries and Fossils: Where It Was Found

The earliest description of this specie was by Georg August Goldfuss,  a German Paleontologist, in 1810. He described the specie under the scientific name Felis spelaea. The first fossil ever excavated was found in a cave in southern Germany. This was dated back to the Würm glaciation.

There have been numerous full and partial fossil discoveries since then. Among the most impressive was the discovery of two frozen cubs in Siberia in 2015. The cubs, which were determined to have been preserved for up to 55,000 years, had most of their body intact. 

Another similar discovery in 2017 was of another perfectly preserved cub that was believed to have been about 8 weeks old when it died. A fourth discovery in the Siberian permafrost was another perfectly preserved cub. The cub’s body was well-preserved with fur, muscles, and even internal organs fully intact. 

Extinction: When Did It Die Out?

It is difficult to tell the exact cause of the cave lion’s extinction which was believed to have occurred about 12,000 years ago. However, experts believe that the population of the species might have reduced due to the severe reduction in the population of their prey.  

Habitat is another theory commonly put forward. It is believed that the shrinking forest as the climate warmed pushed the lions into wide-open spaces, which put significant pressure on their species. Another theory points to human migration into Europe; with both species competing for the same prey, it was difficult for the lions to keep up.   

Similar Animals to The Cave Lion 

Extant canines that are similar to the Cave Lion include: 

  • American lion: Panthera atrox is also commonly called the American cave lion. This pantherine cat species lived in North America from the Pleistocene epoch through to the early Holocene epoch. 
  • Panthera shawi: This is an extinct species of prehistoric cat, believed to be the oldest Panthera species in Africa. There is limited fossil evidence of the species’ existence. However, a single canine tooth was excavated in Sterkfontein cave in South Africa in the 1940s.  
  • Saber-tooth Tiger: While both species are not particularly related, they lived alongside each other before their extinction. The most prominent feature of this cat species is their curved canine teeth that were visible even when they closed their mouths. 
  • Panthera youngi: Panthera youngi is a species of extinct cat believed to have lived in Asia in the Pleistocene Epoch. They shared several similarities with the cave lions. 

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Popova Valeriya/Shutterstock.com

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About the Author

Abdulmumin is a pharmacist and a top-rated content writer who can pretty much write on anything that can be researched on the internet. However, he particularly enjoys writing about animals, nature, and health. He loves animals, especially horses, and would love to have one someday.

FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

When did the Cave Lion live?

The cave lion lived during the Pleistocene epoch (about 370,000 to 10,000 years ago). The species is believed to have gone extinct during the Würm glaciation. However, some scientists believe they existed in the Balkans well into historical times,  only disappearing about 2,000 years ago.

How big was the Cave Lion

Cave lions were between 10-30% larger than modern-day lions. They were between 4-5 feet tall at the shoulder and were nearly 7 feet in length from the tip of the nose to the end of their back (without measuring the tail).

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