Discovery of world's oldest big cat fossil suggests predator evolved in Asia

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.
Researchers were able to
determine the skull's age. The fossil is
"convincingly older than the current
record holder", said David Polly, a
paleontologist at Indiana University
who had no role in the study.
Polly said there was good
evidence that the big cat lived in the
Tibetan plateau, and there could be
even older big cat fossils there to
uncover.
The new cat species was named
Panthera blytheae after Blythe Haaga,
whose parents are donors of the
Natural History Museum of Los
Angeles County.