An extinct breed of lion from North Africa was held at the Tower of London in medieval times, a new study shows. A pair of skulls unearthed from the tower's moat in the 1930s belonged to Barbary lions, a subspecies that has since died out in the wild.
The discovery raises the possibility that descendants of Barbary lions may still survive in captivity, which could help efforts to resurrect the dark-maned breed, researchers say.
The lions' North African roots were revealed by analysis of mitochondrial DNA, a genetic marker passed between females.
What's more, the DNA reveals that the two animals represent the oldest confirmed Barbary lion remains in the world, the study team said.
The findings are reported in the current issue of the journal Contributions to Zoology.
Radiocarbon dating of the lion skulls in 2005 indicated that the two male cats first came to the tower in the 13th century, the oldest being dated to between A.D. 1280 and 1385.
(Read "Medieval Lion Skulls Reveal Secrets of Tower of London 'Zoo'" [November 3, 2005].)
At that time the palace housed the Royal Menagerie, a diverse collection of exotic animals owned by the reigning monarch.
Carcasses of dead animals from the menagerie were likely thrown into the moat, where they became buried in silt, said study team member Richard Sabin of the Natural History Museum in London.
The environment preserved the lion skulls remarkably well, allowing genetic samples to be taken, Sabin said.