Oldest Big Cat Species Yet

Scientists who study the origins of cats have a puzzle to solve: genetic studies indicate that the big cats (lions, tigers, jaguars, and leopards) split off from other cat species about 10.8 million years ago and the oldest common ancestor to today's big cats lived in Asia over 6 million years ago, while paleontologists have fossils going back only 3.8 million years, and they were from Africa. But in 2010, American Museum of Natural History paleontologist Jack Tseng found a collection of cat bones in Tibet that were hard to place. Three years of study later, Tseng and his team have announced a new cat species, Panthera blytheae, from fossils that range from 4 to 6 million years old. The discovery rearranged the cat family tree.

This new tree firmly anchors the origin of the big cats in central Asia. It also says that the group is even older than previously thought, diverging from other cats 18.7 million years ago.

The clouded leopards then split off from the other pantherines 16.4 million years ago, and moved into Southeast Asia. The remaining lineages diverged into two main branches around 10.2 million years ago. One spread into the rest of southern and eastern Asia, and gave rise to P.blytheae, the snow leopard and the tiger. The other spread west into the Middle East, Africa and the Americas, giving rise to the lion, leopard, jaguar, cave lion and American lion.  

Studying prehistoric cats is difficult (as is studying modern cats) because they look so much alike, especially without skin or fur. It is thought that the new cat P. blytheae hunted prey like ancient horses, antelope, and sheep -just like their descendants do today. Read the rest of the story at Not Exactly Rocket Science.

(Image credit: Julie Selan)

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