The Speculist: The Tower Lions

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The Tower Lions

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At some point between the reign of Edward I (1272-1307) and and that of Richard II (1377-1399), two lions lived in the Tower of London. They were part of a Royal Menagerie that was kept at the Tower for some 600 years, until the animals were moved to the London Zoo in the 19th century. There are a couple of reasons that these medieval lions are particularly interesting. First, they were part of a population of Barbary lions -- a north African lion subspecies known for their long, dark manes which has been extinct in the wild since the 20th century. And second, their skulls were recovered during an excavation at the tower's moat in the 1930's.

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These skulls have recently been subject to carbon dating, which identified them as coming from the era mentioned above, as well as genetic testing, which may prove to be of great benefit to some lions in the future.

Although Barbary lions have been extinct in the wild since the 1920's, there are a few Barbary descendants living in zoos scattered around the world. But because of inbreeding among the various subspecies of lions in captivity, it's not clear how representative any of these surviving lions are of the subspecies as it once existed. Although some of them certainly do look the part:

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Richard Sabin, part of a research team at the London Natural History Museum which is studying the skulls, believes that these medieval lions have a role to play in helping sort out which of their modern-day cousins come closest to being true Barbary lions:

Because we have these good genetic samples from known purebred Barbary lions, we can compare DNA from those ancient specimens to the ones that potentially are still alive in zoos today.

So what, you might ask. So we identify the last few remnants of an extinct breed of lion -- what's the point? Well, Oxford University scientist Nobuyuki Yamaguchi has an idea. Selective breeding of the remaining lions of Barbary descent could lead to a reintroduction of the subspecies. Ultimately, Yamaguchi contends, a small population of Barabary lions could be returned to their northwest African native habitat.

We've written about this sort of thing before at The Speculist. The reintroduction of extinct species is one of the many positive developments we have to look forward to. What is especially interesting about what Sabin and Yamaguchi are proposing is that it doesn't require any Jurassic-Park style cloning or other advanced technologies. We simply compare the genetic profile of some modern lions with that of their pure Barbary ancestors and breed accordingly. Granted, that involves some relatively "advanced technology," historically speaking, but nothing beyond our current capability.

So our two Tower lions, who probably lived their entire lives in captivity, and who were a small part of a very long line of lions who lived exactly that way, may hold the key not only to bringing Barbary lions back from the dead, but putting them back in the wild.

That is surely a task worthy of two such noble, and in point of fact royal, beasts.

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Comments

In order to bring back a species from the brink a certain minimum number of individuals are needed.

What that number is, I guess, depends on the species and how long the remaining individuals have inbred.

Perhaps the day will come when a species could be resurrected from the DNA of a single individual.

In addition to cloning that individual who's DNA was found, you'd have to engineer a suitably diverse breeding population.

This strikes me a tough work, but within the realm of possibility.

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