LOS ANGELES — The oldest big cat fossil ever found — which fills in a significant gap in the fossil record — was discovered on a paleontological dig in Tibet, scientists recently announced.
A skull from the new species, named Panthera blytheae, was excavated and described by a team led by Jack Tseng — a graduate student at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences at the time of the discovery, and now a postdoctoral fellow at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
“This find suggests that big cats have a deeper evolutionary origin than previously suspected,” Tseng said.
The announcement was made in a scientific paper published by the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, on Nov. 13.
Tseng’s coauthors include Xiaoming Wang, who has joint appointments at USC, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, the AMNH, and the Chinese Academy of Sciences; Graham Slater of the Smithsonian Institution; Gary Takeuchi of the NHM and the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits; Qiang Li of the CAS; Juan Liu of the University of Alberta and the CAS; and Guangpu Xie of the Gansu Provincial Museum.
DNA evidence suggests that the so-called “big cats” – the Pantherinae subfamily, including lions, jaguars, tigers, leopards, snow leopards and clouded leopards — diverged from their nearest evolutionary cousins, felinae (which includes cougars, lynxes, and domestic cats), about 10.8 million years ago.
However, the oldest fossils of big cats previously found are tooth fragments uncovered at Laetoli in Tanzania (the famed hominin site excavated by Mary Leakey in the 1970s), dating to just 3.8 million years ago.
Using magnetostratigraphy — dating fossils based on the distinctive patterns of reversals in the Earth’s magnetic field, which are recorded in layers of rock — Tseng and his team were able to estimate the age of the skull and other fossils belonging to the new species at between 4.10 and 5.95 million years old.
The new cat takes its name from Blythe, the snow-leopard-loving daughter of Paul and Heather Haaga, who are avid supporters of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.