Gigantic Ice Age Lions Used to Roam Africa, 200,000-Year-Old Fossil Reveals

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Scientists studying a giant fossilized lion skull think it could be evidence of a previously unknown population of lions.

As big as those of the largest cave lions, researchers think the partial skull belonged to an ancient lion far larger than any known to have lived in Africa.

An analysis of the skull was published in the Journal of Paleontology.

The 200,000-year-old fossil was found at a site in Natodomeri in northwest Kenya. The researchers think the gigantic lions may have lived during the late Middle to Late Pleistocene epoch.

The researchers compared the skull to those of modern lions from Africa. The average modern lion skull stretched about 10.5 inches, while the longest measured just over 12 inches.

At nearly 15 inches long, “the fossil [was]about 20 percent longer than even the largest lion skull I have had access to,” Lars Werdelin, a professor of paleobiology at the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm and one of the study authors, told Newsweek.

The partial lion skull is pictured and labeled with a 100mm (4 inches) marker to scale. The skull measures about 15 inches in length. Fredrick K Manthi et al/Journal of Paleontology

He thinks the skull is very unlikely to simply be an outlier from known lion populations in Africa.

“It really is all about the remarkable size,” Wederlin said. “The skull is so much bigger than that of any living or fossil African lion that the probability that it could come from a population with a mean size and variability similar to those is very, very small.”

While he did not estimate exactly how tall this lion would have stood, the data, Werdelin said, could be generated.

One explanation for the big lions might come from their hefty diets. Megafauna—big animals weighing about 100 lb and larger—roamed far and wide in the Pleistocene era. An abundance of large creatures like the giant buffalo Syncerus antiquus might have sustained these mega lions, the authors wrote.