Fossil of Oldest Big Cat Discovered in Tibet

By Michele Berger
Published: November 13, 2013

Researchers in the Himalayas discovered the remains of the oldest known big cat.

A fossil from Panthera blytheae, an animal closely related to the snow leopard and exhibiting characteristics similar to other big cats, lived nearly 6 million years ago, much earlier than previous estimates for animals of this lineage, according to a paper published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B. It also came from Tibet rather than Africa, where the oldest fossils of this type have been found.

The researchers from the University of Southern California and several natural history museums in the United States and Canada, reported their findings online yesterday.

“These new fossils fill in a huge time gap,” paleobiologist Jack Tseng of the American Museum of Natural History told National Geographic.

The team made the discovery in 2010, while scouting on what Tseng described as a “typical day.” But when they stumbled on a jaw with countable teeth roots, they knew they’d found something unique. They kept digging and eventually uncovered a skull, National Geographic reports. Given its size, they determined the animal likely weighed 40 to 50 pounds, according to Popular Science. Given its location, they placed it in snow leopard lineage.

Tseng and colleagues used anatomical data and DNA to double check that the fossil did, in fact, prove a new species. They plan to return to the site to search for additional specimens, states a report from USC News. 

“We are in the business of discovery,” notes co-author Xiaoming Wang, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History. “We go out into the world in search of new fossils to illuminate the past.” 

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