Scientists have discovered the oldest big cat fossil ever in Tibet. The near complete skull has been dated between 4.1 and 5.95 million years old and belongs to a previously unknown species.
The previous oldest big cat fossil was found in Tanzania, Africa, dating from around 3.7 million years ago. Thus this recent discovery fills a major gap in our understanding of the animal evolution: scientist now think big cats came from Asia and spread to the rest of the world from there.
The new species, which has been named Panthera blytheae, is very closely related to the modern snow leopard, scientists say, and not a direct ancestor to other big cats like tigers, lions or jaguars. The newest fossil had a broad forehead similar to snow leopards and its front teeth were heavily worn. It was small for a big cat — probably about the size of a clouded leopard, a cat found in the rainforests of Southeast Asia that can grow to 50 pounds (23 kilograms).
Palaeobiologist Dr Anjali Goswami of University College London called the cat skull a “magnificently preserved” and “very significant” find, which can help scientists learn more about modern snow leopards.