Russian and South Korean scientists are attempting to clone one of two lion cub remains preserved since the Ice Age in Russia’s Sakha Republic, according to multiple outlets. The 12,000-year-old specimens from the now-extinct species were discovered last August in remarkable condition thanks to the Siberian region’s icy temperatures.
“This find, beyond any doubt, is sensational,” said Yakutian Academy of Sciences head of the mammoth fauna studies Dr. Albert Protopopov.
While one of the cubs will belong to the Mammoth Museum’s collection in Russia, the other will be instrumental to an ambitious cloning experiment.
“Since the soft tissues of the cubs are practically not damaged, our scientists believe it might be possible to clone them,” the Yakutian Academy of Sciences announced upon last year’s discovery. “We’ll see how it goes in a couple of years.”
By now, the cloning project may well be proceeding ahead of schedule.
Researchers from the Joint Foundation of Molecular Paleontology at North East Russia University hope to find living tissue containing DNA in the animal, in turn using that genetic code to essentially bring the species back to life.
According to the Siberian Times, South Korean cloning expert Hwang Woo-suk has traveled to Yakutsk to retrieve genetic samples from one of the cubs. He apparently oversaw removal of skin and muscle samples that will be used in the cloning attempt. Express reports that there was actually some disagreement with Siberian experts regarding the size of samples to which he was entitled.
“They expected to take more, as they did with the woolly mammoth previously,” Mammoth Museum director Semyon Grigoriev said of the dispute. “But it will not work with with these little kittens. You have to understand, the lion cub is very small, so it was not possible to get as much as we would like.”
It’s a “Jurassic Park”-like plot, and it’s anything but science fiction. Indeed, some of the scientists involved with trying to clone the lion are also attempting to clone a mammoth that was preserved under similar circumstances.
Given the unprecedented nature of such an experiment, it could very well provoke some controversy among the scientific community.
Named Uyan and Dina, the big cats once belonged to the Pleistocene period. Despite their protracted stay in ice, the animals’ bodies remained incredibly intact. As Protopopov noted, the discoveries were found, “complete with all their body parts: fur, ears, soft tissue, and even whiskers.”
Researchers plan on returning to the cave in which they were found in a bid to find other prehistoric cats. But there’s been no shortage of satisfaction associated with the discovery already made.
“Compared to modern lion cubs, we think these two were very small—maybe a week or two old,” Protopopov added. “The eyes were not quite open, they have baby teeth and not all had appeared.”
Protopopov has also speculated that the young cats were hidden in the cave by their mother in a bid to protect them from predators.
“Then the landslide covered [the cave] and they remained surrounded by permafrost,” Protopopov explained. “The air intake was also blocked, and this helped their preservation.”
The cats were originally found by collectors in search of mammoth tusks. Once photographs of the find were sent to experts, it was immediately clear that a significant discovery had been made.
“We will conduct computer-based and radiocarbon investigations, genetics and molecular examinations of the DNA, and inspect the cubs’ internal organs,” Protopopov said at the time. “This complex research will tell us a lot about the origin of cave lions and their kin group.”
Scientists also examined the bodies for potentially dangerous pathogenic bacteria and infections, but nothing turned up.
Regardless of how successful the cloning project proves to be, the discovery will almost certainly yield valuable information for experts.
“The methods of research are constantly being improved—about once a decade there is a mini-revolution,” Protopopov said more recently. “So we will do everything possible to keep this carcass frozen for as long as possible.”