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