Scientists have unearthed the oldest big cat fossil yet, in Tibet, suggesting the predator – similar to a snow leopard – evolved in Asia before roaming further afield.
The nearly complete skull has been estimated at 4.4m years old, making it significantly older than the big cat remains recovered from Tanzania dating to about 3.7m years ago
The fossil has a broad forehead similar to snow leopards; its front teeth are heavily worn. It would have been small for a big cat, probably about the size of the clouded leopard, which is found in the rainforests of south-east Asia and can grow to 50lb (23kg).
While the new specimen is not a direct ancestor to big cats like tigers, lions, jaguars, it is closely related to the snow leopard, said the study leader Jack Tseng, of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The find was detailed in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.
In 2010 Tseng and colleagues embarked on a fossil-hunting expedition in the Himalayas. While hiking on a mountaintop, Tseng’s wife, Juan Liu, a graduate student, found a trove of scattered bones, among them, a buried cat skull about the size of a large grapefruit.
The new cat species was named Panthera blytheae after Blythe Haaga, whose parents are donors of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.