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.

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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.

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