A Big Discovery

A new study reveals that a skull found in Tibet is the oldest big cat fossil ever unearthed

Nov 13, 2013 | By Kelli Plasket, with AP reporting
MAURICIO ANTON/PROCEEDINGS OF THE ROYAL SOCIETY B/AP

This artist's rendering shows what an extinct big cat, Panthera blytheae, looked like based on a newly discovered skull.

Big cats have roamed the earth for millions of years, though scientists aren’t sure exactly how long. But a new study reveals that a skull of a snow leopard relative that was recently unearthed is 4.4 million year old. That makes it the oldest big cat fossil ever found.

A team of U.S. and Chinese paleontologists unearthed the skull of the newly-named Panthera blytheae in Tibet. The new specimen is not a direct ancestor to big cats, but it is closely related to the snow leopard, study leader Jack Tseng told the Associated Press. The fossil lends evidence to the belief that big cats evolved in Asia and spread out from there.

This rendering shows the newly discovered skull of a Panthera blytheae.
MAURICIO ANTON/PROCEEDINGS OF THE ROYAL SOCIETY B/AP
This rendering shows the newly discovered skull of a Panthera blytheae.

Origin of Big Cats

Big cats are apex predators, which means that they are at the top of the food chain and have few predators of their own. Also called pantherines, big cats include snow leopards, clouded leopards, tigers, lions, and jaguars. Based on genetic estimates, most scientists believe the felines first evolved in Central Asia. But previously, the oldest known big cat fossil was 3.6 million years old and found in Africa.

The new fossil findings were published in the November 13 issue of the science journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. Tseng and his team were fossil hunting in the Himalayas in 2010 when they discovered scattered bones, including the buried cat skull. The researchers were able to determine its age by studying the surrounding rocks and soil. The new fossil is about the size of a large grapefruit, with a broad forehead similar to snow leopards and front teeth that were heavily worn. The skull indicates that the animal was about the size of a clouded leopard, which can grow up to 50 pounds. In 2012, the team returned to excavate more cat bones.

Paleontologist David Polly from Indiana University, who did not work on the study, told the Associated Press that the fossil is “convincingly older than the current record holder.” He added that there could be even older big cat fossils in the Tibetan plateau to uncover. Maybe the mystery of big cats’ origins will soon be solved.