Most discoveries from the fossil record leave a lot to the imagination: scattered teeth, partial skeletons and tantalising footprints are classic examples. But a new discovery from the Asian Arctic is exceedingly – and excitingly – abnormal: a baby cave lion so pristinely preserved that you can still see the expression on its face.

This beautiful animal is estimated to be at least 20,000 years old, but it doesn't look it (aside from belonging to a long-extinct species!): eyes closed, with its head still resting on the paw curled under its chin, the little lion has been frozen in time by the Siberian permafrost, un-melted since its death during the peak of the last Ice Age glaciation.

Boris Berezhnov, a resident of the Abyysky District of Yakutia, spotted the unfamiliar remains in September, exposed on a bank of the Tirekhtykh River during a drop in water levels, according to a report from The Siberian Times. The tiny cave lion is only about 45cm (18in) long, estimated to have been at most two months old when it died.

If you think this story sounds familiar, you may be remembering the famous pair of frozen cubs found two years ago in the same region. Nicknamed Uyan and Dina, they were even younger than this new cub, barely two weeks old at the time of their deaths. The finds received a lot of attention due to their excellent preservation, which even allowed researchers to study the internal organs.

The permafrost of northern Asia is well known for producing frozen juvenile animals: in fact, the same region has also yielded stunningly preserved baby mammoths.

Uyan and Dina are thought to have died when their den collapsed on top of them, an event that also damaged their bodies, and could be the reason why some parts of the two cubs are missing. The new permafrost find (which doesn't seem to have a cute nickname yet) is much more complete. "It is a perfectly preserved lion cub," said Albert Protopopov of the Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia), "all the limbs have survived. There are no traces of external injuries on the skin."

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A full-body photo of the cave-lion cub known as Uyan. Image: Olga Potapova

Cave lions were close cousins of the modern African lion. During the colder times of the Pleistocene Epoch, they lived across Europe and Asia before going extinct by around 14,000 years ago. As for their name, it derives from the fact that many of their fossils are found in caves (though the animals probably didn't live in them), which make excellent environments for good fossil preservation.

This new cave lion has only just been unveiled, and the scientists involved now have a lot to learn about it. For starters, they plan to look at its teeth to determine more precisely how old it was at the time of death. They should also be able to figure out its sex, and how long ago it lived. What's more, the lion's perfect state of preservation will likely allow scientists to sample its DNA as well.

DNA preserves exceptionally well in cold and dry climates, which are fortuitously abundant in northern Ice Age deposits. Previous research on cave lion DNA has provided insights into their evolution and species relationships. Who knows what secrets this new little lion has to share?



Top header image: Screenshot/The Siberian Times/YouTube