A recent fossil discovery in the Himalayas has pushed back the clock on big cat evolution by as much as seven million years. But not only that, the discovery of this previously unknown ancient leopard shows that these apex predators arose in Asia, not Africa.
This new species, the elegantly named Panthera blytheae (named for the daughter of longtime Natural History Museum of Los Angeles benefactors Paul and Heather Haaga of La Cañada Flintridge), is distantly related to the modern snow leopard. Seven specimens, some dating back from 4.1 to 5.9 million years ago, were discovered back in 2010 during an expedition in Tibet.
This creature, adapted to the high elevations, was slightly smaller than the snow leopard and would have romped around the Tibetan plateau for several million years feeding on antelope, pika, and blue sheep.
Prior to this study, paleontologists figured that the so-called "big cats" (also called pantherine felids) diverged from other cats about 11 million years ago. Then, about 6 million years ago, they radiated into several branches of feline apex predators, namely lions, tigers, jaguars, and leopards. As to the geographic location of this divergence, however, the fossil record said Africa, while the DNA evidence suggested Asia.
But in the new study, the paleontologists used the new fossil evidence to refine the evolutionary family tree and match it to a DNA-based timeline. Gaps still remain in the record, but Panthera blytheae now represents the oldest — not the most primitive — species of big cat found to date.
Read the entire study at Proceedings of the Royal Society B: "Himalayan fossils of the oldest known pantherine establish ancient origin of big cats."
Images: Julie Selan and Mauricio Anton.