A female cave lion cub nicknamed Sparta may be the best-preserved Ice Age animal ever discovered. Sparta, who is nearly 28,000 years old, was found frozen in the permafrost of Siberia, and even her whiskers, golden fur, sharp claws and internal organs are intact. She's not alone: A male cub, nicknamed Boris, was also found, but Sparta was in better condition, according to a new study published in the science journal Quaternary.
Both cubs were under two months old when they died.
Sparta and Boris are members of a big cat species, Panthera spelaea, that is now extinct. Both were found by mammoth-tusk hunters in 2017-2018 in Yakutia, eastern Siberia. They were found just 49 feet (15 meters) apart and originally thought to be siblings, but it turned out that Boris is 15,000 years older than Sparta -- he's 43,448 years old to her 28,000 years, the report says.
While the journal article was just published in early August 2021, back in 2019, the Siberian Times put together videos showing Sparta and Boris carefully being examined by researchers.
How did the cubs die? The report notes that neither body had teethmarks, so predators likely didn't kill them. Researchers' best guess is that both cubs were left alone in caves when their mothers went out to hunt, but they then met different fates.
It's possible Sparta's mother went out to bring back food and somehow was killed before she could return to feed her offspring.
'(Sparta) starved to death," Albert Protopopov, one of the study's authors, told The Siberian Times back in 2019. "We wondered why she looked so skinny when she was found and then tomography of her internal organs showed there was no fat. It was the most extreme stage of starvation."
Even in death, Sparta's claws remain sharp enough to prick the finger of one of the scientists examining her, CNN reports.
Boris may have died in a cave-in.
"We found visible traces of internal injuries which we believe could have been caused by rock falling on him," Protopopov told the newspaper.
Both cubs were mostly covered in golden-brown fur, which might have turned light gray to serve as camouflage in the Siberian winter, had they grown up.
Love Dalén, a professor of evolutionary genetics at the Centre for Palaeogenetics in Stockholm, Sweden, and another of the study's authors, told CNN that researchers next hope to sequence Sparta's DNA in order to learn more about the cave lion species and its history.