A snow leopard at the Toronto Zoo The snow leopard is the closest living relative to the Panthera blytheae

In Tibet in 2010  Z. Jack Tseng and Juan Liu travelled to a remote section of the Tibetan Plateau. Whilst there they came across a collection of prehistoric fossils, mostly antelope and other known herbivores, with one notable exception, the skull of a previously undiscovered big cat which they called Panthera blytheae. This skull and the accompanying jawbone fragments belong to what is now, to date, the oldest known big cat. After analysis of its teeth, it has been theorized that this cat would have been quite similar in habitat and hunting style to the modern snow leopard. “In terms of the overall size it would be a little bit smaller than a snow leopard– the size of a clouded leopard and those living cats grow up to around 20kg [44lb],” said Jack Tseng, the discoverer.

Skull of a snow leopard, which is very similar to the skull of the newly found Panthera blytheae

This discovery is quite significant with regards to big cat evolutionary history. Current experts hold that big cats broke from the main felinea subfamily some time around 6.37 million years ago. However, until this find, the oldest big cat fossil was a 3.5 million year old fossil from Tanzania. P. blytheae not only pushes the date back almost two million years, being estimated to have lived between 4.10 and 5.95 million years ago, but also gave weight to the theory that big cats originated first in Asia, not in Africa. Anjali Goswami, a palaeobiologist at University College London said, “This beautiful fossil supports the Asian origin for the group, bringing together molecular, living and fossil data into a unified view of pantherine evolution. It also supports the idea that the Tibetan plateau was, and remains, an important biogeographic region for large mammals and is the center of origin for many important groups. Nailing down the place of origin for pantherines also means that we can better understand the environmental and ecological context in which this group evolved.”

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