Through the discovery of a big cat fossil deposited by a river in the north slopes of the Himalaya range, Central Asia, scientist can roll back by millions of years the time when big cats first roamed the planet and they really did have it all to themselves millions of years ago. Nowadays, their habitat and population are vestiges of what they were long ago.
Incidentally, the phrase “big cat” is rather flexible and not a scientific term in the strict sense. It usually means the four big cats that roar: tiger, lion, jaguar and leopard. However, it can be extended to include the other cats of the panthera lineage: snow leopard and clouded leopard. It can even be wider than that.
It is probably obvious but the dating of the emergence of a species of animal through fossil discovery is not conclusive because you can always find an earlier one.
However, a recent discovery of the fossil of a large cat that appears to be much like the snow leopard has been dated at between 4.1 and 5.95 million years old (scientists write “millions of years” as “ma”).
On a PoC page about big cat history, based on a reliable source, I have listed the following earliest fossils:
On the basis, therefore, that the previous earliest big cat fossil is 3.5 million years old (the BBC state 3.6 million), the new find is significant as the fossil is up to 2.45 million years older and this fossil relates to a different species that has been named: Panthera blytheae.
Another interesting aspect of the discovery is that the fossil was found in a remote part of Tibet (Zanda, Ngari, Xizang (Tibet), China. The area is called the “Zanda Basin”. There is a dispute about Tibet being China. A lot of Tibetans don’t like the way China annexed Tibet. There have been routine protests in the UK about this.
This is the Zanda Basin (a fossil hunter’s play ground):
The find indicates that:
- the big cat lineage (panthera – “pantherine cats”) started about 7 million years earlier than previously believed and it supports the view that:
- the big cats first appeared in Asia rather than Africa.
Although more work and digging needs to be done, it appears that this new ancient species of big cat is the ancestor of all modern big cats.
The scientific team which included Dr Tseng and his wife Juan Liu are returning to the site to try and find more fossil specimens.