Smithsonian scientist confirms missing link in big cat evolution


Share post:

After years of sleuthing for clues about where and when pantherine felids (“big cats”) originated, a Smithsonian scientist and an international team of researchers are one step closer to understanding the evolutionary history of these species. A fossil recently found in the Zanda Basin in Tibet included remains of Pantera blytheae, a new species of big cat that is most closely related to the modern day snow leopard.

Smithsonian scientist confirms missing link in big cat evolution
The top of the P. blytheae fossil skull. This specimen revealed that ancient big cats
lived nearly 6 million years ago, 2 million years earlier than
previously thought [Credit: Gary T. Takeuchi]

The skull of P. blytheae is the oldest big cat fossil found to date, and fills a significant gap in the fossil record. It indicates that ancient big cats lived nearly 6 million years ago, 2 million years earlier than previously thought, and sheds light on their geographic origins in Asia. Scientists plan to build on this research by studying how big cats evolved and adapted to changes in their environment over time to help inform modern day big cat conservation efforts.

The research is published in the Jan. 7 issue of Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

Graham Slater, a Peter Buck post-doctoral fellow at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, examined the remains of P. blytheae after its excavation, and helped confirm its status as a new species by conducting morphological and DNA analyses of the skull.

“P. blytheae is a missing link we’ve been searching for in the timeline of big cat evolution,” said Slater. “Scientists are now closer to understanding the evolutionary origin of big cats and are gathering data about their habitat. The hope is that we can apply our knowledge of how P. blytheae adapted to environmental changes millions of years ago to predict the sustainability of snow leopard populations in existence today.”

Ancient cat fossils are rare, making the nearly complete P. blytheae skull an incredibly valuable specimen. Before this discovery, the oldest known fossils of big cats indicated that they first appeared about 3.8 million years ago in Africa. However, DNA comparisons of modern species suggested that big cats evolved at least 6 million years ago in Asia. For the past decade, scientists have been searching for a way to explain these discrepancies. Thanks to the discovery of P. blytheae, researchers now have a critical piece of evolutionary evidence that reconciles the existing fossil and molecular data for big cats and helps tell the story of their evolution.

Smithsonian scientist confirms missing link in big cat evolution
A life reconstruction of the skull of P. blytheae, the oldest known pantherine cat.
Scientists believe this ancient species of big cat is most closely related to
the modern day snow leopard [Credit: Artwork by Mauricio Antón]

While the P. blytheae skull is helping scientists better understand when big cats first appeared, the search for even older fossils continues. Phylogenetic evidence suggests that the big cats subfamily, Pantherinae (e.g., lions, tigers, leopards), shared a common ancestor with their evolutionary cousins, Felinae (e.g., cougars, cheetahs, domestic cats), until about 10.8 million years ago when the two lines diverged. The research team plans to search for evidence of this ancestor as well as new big cat species in the Miocene rocks of central Asia, while continuing to add to their collection of P. blytheae specimens.

The scientists also intend to study the skull in the context of its surrounding fossils, a diverse collection of ice age cats and other species such as Tibetan antelope and blue sheep. The dependency that existed between ancient snow leopards and blue sheep millions of years ago is observed in modern populations of both species, demonstrating the importance of prey populations in long-term carnivore survival. By investigating how P. blytheae adapted to changes in prey availability and environmental conditions, scientists can develop conservation strategies to protect modern day big cat species facing similar threats due to habitat degradation and climate change.

Slater worked with a team of scientists from around the world to confirm the new big cat discovery. These researchers include Jack Tseng, a postdoctoral fellow at the American Museum of Natural History who led the excavation team, as well as five other scientists from academic and museum institutions in the United States, Canada and China.

Source: Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History [January 08, 2014]



Related articles

Potential medieval village in Western Isles found

Archaeologists' chance encounter with an islander has led them to the site of a possible medieval fishing village...

Secrets of Roman concrete revealed

No visit to Rome is complete without a visit to the Pantheon, Trajan's Markets, the Colosseum, or the...

30,000-year-old cave home found in Henan province

Excavation work at the Longquan Mountain Heritage Site, which belongs to the Old Stone Age and is located...

Violent collision of massive supernova with surrounding gas powers superluminous supernovae

In a unique study, an international team of researchers including members from the Kavli Institute for the Physics...

Dark Energy Camera records first light

Eight billion years ago, rays of light from distant galaxies began their long journey to Earth. That ancient...

Study shows our Galaxy has at least 100 billion planets

Our Milky Way galaxy contains a minimum of 100 billion planets according to a detailed statistical study based...

X-ray machine is changing British archaeology

At England's University of Southampton, a sophisticated X-ray machine is being used by archaeologists to make 3-D images...

Relief depicting chariot race found at Stratonikeia

A relief depicting a 2,000-year-old chariot race scene and new gladiator names has been discovered at an archeological...