Ferocious cave lions that once roamed Britain may have had spots.
This is according to a top Russian scientist who says a cub that has been preserved in the Siberian permafrost for 43,500 years has leopard-style markings.
The European or Eurasian cave lion is an extinct species, known from fossils and prehistoric art.
It’s most closely related to the modern lion and ranged from Europe to Alaska over the Bering land bridge until the late Pleistocene, around 10,000 years ago.
Spartak is the latest of a number of cubs to be dug from the permafrost in the vast Yakutia region in Russia and is one of the most perfectly preserved, scientists say.
The extraordinary find raises hopes of cloning the long-gone species back to life in a Jurassic Park-style experiment.
Dr Alexei Tikhonov, a senior scientist at the Laboratory of Mammals at the Zoological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, believes prehistoric cave artists may have been correct in sometimes depicting the predators with spots.
However, he says we will only have a definitive answer if and when the species is cloned back to life.
Dr Tikhonov said: ‘We see that this lion cub is spotted…. Spartak definitely has spots on his back. They are few, but still visible’, he said.
In ancient cave drawings ‘some ancient lions were depicted with spots’, he said.
‘It used to be thought that the Palaeolithic artists decided to simply put on these spots.
‘Now it can be argued that, at least in the fur of cubs, they really were spotted.’
An adult European cave lion is thought to have measured 3.9ft (1.2m) tall and 6.9ft (2.1m) in length without its tail, based on a skeleton found in Germany.
This means it was a similar size to a modern lion.
It’s thought the lions probably hunted larger herbivorous animals of their time, including horses, deer, reindeer, bison and even injured old or young mammoths.
This cub is believed to be a sibling of Boris found earlier some 50 ft (15m) away – although tests still have to be carried out to prove they were related.
Unlike Spartak, Boris appears well fed and did not have spots.
Boris has been dated by Japanese experts as living 43,500 years ago, it was announced this week in regional capital Yakutsk.
Dr Tikhonov said scientists assume the death of Boris was unexpected, he told The Siberian Times.
This cub was ‘chubby’ whereas Spartak shows signs of being completely exhausted.
The little cub may well have perished from starvation, perhaps abandoned by its mother.
A tomogram analysis showed its gastrointestinal tract was completely empty, and the carcass itself was much smaller than Boris, scientists found.
Dr Tikhonov said: ‘Unlike Boris, Spartak has a fully preserved tail. But there is a strange cut or gap on it. We need to sort out how it happened.’
He concluded: ‘We suggest that the mother lioness dumped Spartak from the very beginning.
‘We think that the poor thing was abandoned soon after birth and never got mother’s milk.
‘Boris was well-fed, but something happened rather soon after his birth and he also died.’
Despite this, Japanese professor Naoki Suzuki – who has examined all the cubs – said Spartak’s insides are ‘truly amazing’.
‘Not only are bones preserved, but also the brain and other organs,’ he added.
‘I have already worked with the previously found lion cubs Uyan, Dina and Boris, but Spartak has so far been the best sample for anatomical research.’
The report stated: ‘There are hopes that the finds of these cubs may lead to the species being successfully cloned back to life.
‘If so, this may resolve whether the cave lions were spotted or not.’