It is possible that a new fossil find is a skull of the ancestor of todays snow leopards. The oldest big cat fossils ever found – from a previously unknown species “similar to a snow leopard” – have been unearthed in the Himalayas. Pieces of skull of the newly-named Panthera blytheae have been dated between 4.1 and 5.95 million years old.
The findings by US and Chinese palaeontologists now points to big cats having evolved in Central Asia and not Africa as previous theories suggest. Both anatomical and DNA data was used by the researchers to determine that the skulls belonged to an extinct big cat, whose territory appears to overlap many of the species we know today.
“This cat is a sister of living snow leopards – it has a broad forehead and a short face. But it’s a little smaller – the size of clouded leopards,” said lead author Dr Jack Tseng of the University of Southern California. Snow leopard facial structure evolved to help them survive in extreme cold and high altitudes.
“This ties up a lot of questions we had on how these animals evolved and spread throughout the world. “Biologists had hypothesised that big cats originated in Asia. But there was a division between the DNA data and the fossil record.”
“We were very surprised to find a cat fossil in that basin,” Dr Tseng told BBC News.
“Usually we find antelopes and rhinos, but this site was special. We found multiple carnivores – badgers, weasels and foxes.”
The researchers believe that they have found bone fragments from at leat three individual cats. One specimen is a complete skull. The fragments were dated using magnetostratigraphy – which relies on historical reversals in the Earth’s magnetic field recorded in layers of rock.
However, Prof William Murphy of Texas A&M University, questioned whether the new species was really a sister of the snow leopard. “The authors’ claim that this skull is similar to the snow leopard is very weakly supported based on morphological characters alone,” he told BBC News.(Morphology is a branch of biology studying the form and structure of organisms.)
Murphy says, “It remains equally probable that this fossil is ancestral to the living big cats. More complete skeletons would be beneficial to confirm their findings.”
See more by James Morgan Science reporter, BBC News