Last of the Lions

By Mark Hallett


Hallett and Harris guide the reader on a 20-million-year tour of predator and prey evolution, using environmental change as an engine for adaptation and extinction. The narrative is engaging, spiked with a touch of controversy, and supported by superb illustrations. For those interested in the evolutionary origins of big cats, On the Prowl would be a valuable addition to your library.

~Christopher Shaw, Idaho Museum of Natural History

This week’s feature on On the Prowl: In Search of Big Cat Origins, by Mark Hallett and John M. Harris, continues today with a guest post from Hallet in which he ponders the fate of the steppe lions. Read on, and remember to enter this week’s drawing for a chance to win a copy of the book!

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For some historians well-versed in certain events, few things are as intriguing as the possibility of different outcomes to factual, known occurrences—“alternative history”.

This “what if” factor and the scenarios based on it have long been a staple of popular literature and films. On chilly nights over a whisky, paleontologists, too, have sometimes let their minds wander into these realms, in part because of their love for the vanished creatures on which their research and studies focus. If the asteroid hadn’t struck the earth, would engravings of upright, sentient dinosaurs parade across Egyptian tomb walls, and would the Sphinx have a theropod’s head? If modern humans hadn’t left Africa, would Neanderthals have one day sailed to populate the New World?

For myself, I sometimes like to entertain a more humble fantasy: that if circumstances had been different, we might have several long-extinct animals, like mammoths, ground sloths, and steppe lions, still with us. In researching the changes leading up to the decline of steppe lions for the chapter, “Aftermath of an Ice Age” in On the Prowl: In Search of Big Cat Origins, which I coauthored with John M. Harris, I was intrigued by the research and findings of various workers into the possibility of late-surviving populations of the Eurasian steppe lion, Panthera spelaea, which if things had been different might have had a good chance of reinhabiting parts of the Middle East and Europe following the last glacial episode of the Pleistocene epoch (popularly, “the ice age,” even though this was only one of several), and conceivably avoided total extinction.

Steppe lions died out in Europe between 14,500 and 14,000 years ago, partly because of the post-glacial, climate-caused reforestation of Europe … and from the increased spread of well-armed modern humans.

Steppe lions died out in Europe between 14,500 and 14,000 years ago, partly because of the post-glacial, climate-caused reforestation of Europe (that hitherto had been mostly covered by grassy plains or steppes to which the lions were adapted), and from the increased spread of well-armed modern humans. In spite of this there is scant fossil evidence of lions inhabiting certain coastal localities in Spain and Italy following this extinction, but it’s unclear if those were steppe lions or the smaller, still-living savanna lion Panthera leo, which survives to this day in parts of Africa and a tiny enclave in Gujarat, India. This “lion gap” subsequently lasted for about 6,000 years and ended somewhere around 8,000 years ago, when lions again began dispersing into Eastern Europe, but this time savanna lions. In doing so their route may have taken them through eastern regions like Ukraine and Hungary, which, being nonforested at the time, may have provided a “corridor” of habitat that was once again ecologically compatible with lions’ hunting habits. But what about the European “lion gap,” the period between the extinction of P. spelaea and when scrappy but reliably dated fossil evidence of lions occurs in some Mediterranean sites? Does this show that some populations of steppe lions continued to survive as relict populations, or were they actually the later savanna lions?

Does this show that some populations of steppe lions continued to survive as relict populations, or were they actually the later savanna lions?

One possibility is that some P. leo could actually have reentered Eastern Europe after P. spelaea became extinct but before its known reentrance around 8,000 years ago. The second, even more intriguing, is that steppe lions never went totally extinct in all of Europe but continued to survive in nonforested, eastern areas of the subcontinent until they finally winked out much later during the Holocene (the postglacial period we are now living in), perhaps because of human pressure or natural reforestation. If this is true, they might have temporarily prevented savanna lions from dispersing farther west into the eastern regions of Europe (and possibly even the Middle East) and occupying the steppe lions’ ecological niche. Documented by ancient writers like Herodotus and modern fieldwork, what are assumed to be savanna lions continued to exist well into ancient times: P. leo remains are known in Bulgaria from the third or fourth century BCE, from the Peloponnese around 1000 BCE. and from western Thrace and Thessaly as late as the second century CE.

Thus, a double tragedy. Steppe lions died out because of climate and vegetational changes in Eastern Europe, and today’s savanna lions eventually succumbed to the ever-growing changes created by the later classic civilizations in the Middle East. Could lions (and other vanished big cats) someday be reintroduced into their former territories? We as humans have the power to make it so—something to brood over in solitary daydreams.

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