Beringian tigers and steppe lion stripes

Steppe lion dentaries

Two steppe lion dentaries misidentified as “Beringian tigers”, AMNH F:AM 69006 (a) and AMNH F:AM 69016 (b), from Herrington (1986).

In her 1986 doctoral dissertation, Sandra Herrington proposed that a distinct subspecies of tiger (Panthera tigris) lived in Alaska during the late Pleistocene. Although she did not formally name this subspecies, she called it the “Beringian tiger”. She inferred that it had migrated across the Bering land bridge from Asia. Herrington reached this conclusion by studying fossils from Alaska that were previously identified as steppe lions (Panthera spelaea). She performed a morphometric analysis that used cranial characters that supposedly distinguished tigers from lions. In this analysis, ten dentaries from the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH F:AM) and one dentary from the National Museum of Natural History grouped with tigers.

A DNA sample from one of these dentaries, AMNH F:AM 69016, was included in the phylogenetic analysis of Barnett et al. (2009). It grouped with steppe lions, not tigers, and had the same haplotype as individuals from Russia and Austria. This result confirms that the cranial characters used by Herrington cannot differentiate tigers and lions. All the other specimens she considered to be Beringian tigers are most likely steppe lions. Additionally, Cooper et al. (2016) modelled the maximum range of tigers in the late Pleistocene. They did not inhabit northeastern Siberia during the Last Glacial Maximum (~21 ka), so they would not have crossed the Bering land bridge.

Steppe lion carvings

The Les Combarelles engraving (left) and Mal’ta figurine (right), from Kurtén (1968) and Abramova (1967) respectively.

On a related note, C. Richard Harington (1969; 1996) suggested that steppe lions had stripes. He based this idea on two pieces of evidence: a cave engraving from Les Combarelles, France and an ivory figurine from Mal’ta, Russia. The engraving depicts a lion with sparse lines on its flank, while the figurine is a humanoid wearing a “striped pelt”. In my opinion, neither of these are convincing. The lines on the engraving look too thin and irregular to represent stripes, and could be skin/fur folds instead. It is impossible to tell if the figurine is covered in a pelt or just abstract markings, much less what animal it would be if it was a pelt. Mummies of steppe lion cubs lack stripes or markings of any kind on their fur (Boeskorov et al., 2021), which indicates that adults similarly lacked them.

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