The oldest big cat fossil ever found – which fills in a significant gap in the fossil record – was discovered on a paleontological dig in Tibet, scientists announced today.
4-million-year-old skull of relative of snow leopard fleshes out fossil record of big cats and challenges suppositions about how and where they evolved.
Credit: Mauricio Antón (left) and Figure 1 from the paper (right)
The new cat takes its name from Blythe, the snow-leopard-loving daughter of Paul and Heather Haaga, who are avid supporters of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.
The find not only challenges previous suppositions about the evolution of big cats, it also helps place that evolution in a geographical context. The find occurs in a region that overlaps the majority of current big cat habitats, and suggests that the group evolved in central Asia and spread outward.
In addition, recent estimates suggested that the genus Panthera (lions, tigers, leopards, jaguars, and snow leopards) did not split from genus Neofelis (clouded leopards) until 3.72 million years ago – which the new find disproves.
Tseng, his wife Juan Liu, and Takeuchi discovered the skull in 2010 while scouting in the remote border region between Pakistan and China – an area that takes a bumpy seven-day car ride to reach from Beijing.
Liu found over one hundred bones that were likely deposited by a river eroding out of a cliff. There, below the antelope limbs and jaws, was the crushed – but largely complete – remains of the skull.
“It was just lodged in the middle of all that mess,” Tseng said.
For the past three years, Tseng and his team have used both anatomical and DNA data to determine that the skull does, in fact, represent a new species.
They plan to return to the site where they found the skull in the summer to search for more specimens.
“We are in the business of discovery,” said Wang, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the NHM; adjunct professor of geoscience and biology at USC; and research associate at AMNH. “We go out into the world in search of new fossils to illuminate the past.”
This research was funded by National Basic Research Program of China, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the National Science Foundation, the American Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian Institution (National Museum of Natural History), and the National Geographic Society.