Oldest big cat fossils show species from Asia

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LOS ANGELES — The oldest fossils of a previously unknown ancient leopard species are shaking the pantherine evolutionary tree, suggesting that big cats arose in Asia, not Africa, according to a new study.

Paleontologists led by the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles and the University of Southern California discovered the previously undescribed sister species to the modern snow leopard while on a 2010 expedition to Tibet. Seven specimens from three individuals range in age from 4.1 million to 5.9 million years old -- dialing back the clock on big cat evolution by as much as 2 million years, according to the paper, published online Tuesday in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Panthera blytheae, named for the daughter of longtime museum benefactors Paul and Heather Haaga of La Canada Flintridge, was slightly smaller than the snow leopard and probably roamed the Tibetan plateau for several million years, dining on an ample supply of antelope, pika and blue sheep, said to paleontologist Zhijie Jack Tseng, lead author of the paper.

"We think that the snow leopard and this new cat probably represent a new lineage that was adapted to the high elevation environment of the Tibetan plateau," said Tseng, a postdoctoral fellow at New York's American Museum of Natural History who conducted the work while a doctoral student at USC.

Big cats have presented serious problems for paleontologists. The ancient ambush hunters' preferred habitat proved unproductive for fossilization, leaving a poor record of a sojourn on Earth that exceeded that of modern man by millions of years.