Panthera blytheae: the new "cat on the roof"

13 November 2013

American Museum of Natural History
New York City

University of Southern California
Los Angeles

Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County
Los Angeles

Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology

It is here!

A new paper by members of the Tibetan Plateau Expedition published today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences presents the newest carnivore described from the Zanda Basin in western Tibet: the oldest known pantherine felid fossils.

[Front seat view of the Himalayas from the Zanda Basin in Tibet Autonomous Region, China. Photo by Jack]

The 7 fossil specimens that make up the known material for this new species, Panthera blytheae, were collected over two field seasons (2010 and 2012) in Tibet. This new species, correlated to rocks that are 5.95 to 4.10 million years in age, is the currently the oldest known carnivoran fossil in the Zanda Basin, and in addition represents the new first appearance datum (FAD) of pantherine felids. The Tibetan fossils replace the previous FAD for pantherines known from Laetoli in Africa (those specimens date to around 3.8 million years ago).

[Excavation at ZD1001, type locality of the new fossil cat, in progress, August 2010. Qiang (in blue) brushes away the emerging skull of Panthera blytheae as Jack (in white) looks on in anticipation. Photo by Gary Takeuchi]

The Tibetan fossils were first discovered at locality ZD1001, a highly fossiliferous bonebed discovered by Juan Liu, doctoral student at the University of Alberta, Canada, and a former student at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing. The excavation was supervised by experienced Tar Pits excavator Gary Takeuchi, and the holotype specimen for P. blytheae was prepared by Howell Thomas of the LACM.

 [The holotype skull of Panthera blytheae, IVPP V18788.1. Photo by Jack]

Over the past two and a half years, the research team made detailed comparisons of all living pantherine species and a handful of fossil big cats, and conducted a combined analysis of DNA and anatomical data to estimate the inter-relationships among the fossil and living big cats. The new big cat species is a sister species of the living snow leopard, indicating an ancient lineage of high plateau pantherine predators persisted for millions of years on the "Roof of the World".

[Artist's depiction of Panthera blytheae, based on the living snow leopard. By Julie Selan]

Furthermore, the new research indicates that the old geologic age of the new fossils pushes divergence time estimates for the living big cat species backward, some to the late Miocene. This finding shortens the previously perceived long ghost lineage between the divergence of big cats from other members of living cats and the diversification among the first big cats. Lastly, an analysis of the geographic distribution of living big cats and likely origins of fossil big cats indicates that central Asia, and by extension the Tibetan Plateau, was a critical region for early evolution of the living cats, of which the big cats are the earliest branching lineage.

[Life reconstruction of Panthera blytheae by Mauricio Antón]

The abstract of the article can be accessed here: http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/281/1774/20132686.short?rss=1

A copy of the paper is available upon request, from the first two authors, Xiaoming (xwang [at] nhm.org) and Jack (jtseng [at] amnh.org). In addition, according to the journal's web page, "All Proceedings B content is FREE to access until the 30th November".

Links to media coverage of the new findings will be added here as the stories are published!

Fossil Find Clears Up Big Cat Origins

The Oldest Big Cat, From the Roof of the World – Phenomena: Not Exactly Rocket Science

Himalayan fossils point to Asian origin of big cats - life - 13 November 2013 - New Scientist

Ancient Roar from Tibet: Panthera blytheae | chasing sabretooths

▶ Reconstruction of fossil pantherine cat - YouTube

Oldest big cat fossils suggest species first roared in Asia - latimes.com

BBC News - Oldest big cat fossil found in Tibet

Ancient Cat May Reshape Feline Family Tree | Science/AAAS | News

Blythe’s panther discovery: Tibet expedition to find oldest big cat.

Researchers discover new big cat fossil in Himalayas | Take Two | 89.3 KPCC

Oldest Big Cat: Fossil of Four-Plus Million-Year-Old Big Cat Species Discovered

Leopard-like creature is the oldest big cat yet found : Nature News & Comment

Oldest Known Species of Big Cat Pushes Origins Back Millions of Years - D-brief | DiscoverMagazine.com

Leopard-like Creature Is the Oldest Big Cat Yet Found: Scientific American

Fossil of New Big Cat Species Discovered; Oldest Ever Found | Press Room | USC


Fwd: Tibet field update 2

This is day 15 in Zhada Basin. The basin is scenic as usual (see
attached picture; background is one of the 6000-meter plus peaks of
the Himalayas), although it's quite dry this year -- good thing for
vert paleontologists but presumably bad for local economy.

The collecting has been good. In addition to the usual horses, rhinos,
and bovids, we got four taxa that are new records for the basin. Two
of them are giraffes: a perfect ossicone of Palaeotragus and a pair of
ossicones of rather modern-looking giraffid that we no idea what to
make of it. The other two new records are a dog (Xenocyon) and a cat
(Lynx?). Furthermore, we got some nice cranial and dental materials of
a raccoon dog (previously known by an edentulous jaw frag).

We will wrap up our Zhada works in a day or two, and, to expand our
horizons, plan to spend a few days in 2-3 small basins in nearby

Best from Tibet,


Sent via BlackBerry

2012 Field update 1

Usually this the job of Jack's, but since he is not with us, my own
writings will have to do.

We have just finished a small campaign in a sub-basin of Qaidam called
Hongyazi in northern Tibetan Plateau, our usual practice of acclimating
ourselves in relative low elevation before heading up to high Tibet.
Hongyazi is kind of new to us (discovered only last year), but we
already managed to find faunas of early Miocene, middle Mioc, plus
Hipparion fauna previous known here. This the most beautiful site in
Qaidam -- towering snow peaks, melting snow water meandering through
lush grasses, wild geese and ducks. Although at a relatively low
elevation of 3700 m, it's cold enough to freeze at night, but it's been
fun in the last few days.

Our next goal is Zhada Basin. It will take us about a week to get there,
with a two-day lay over in Lhasa. Sitting in our car heading to Lhasa,
there are a lot of time in our hands...

Best from Tibet,