The Tibet Plateau is called the “Roof of the World” as it stands over 3 miles above sea level. It is surrounded by mountain ranges that are home to Mount Everest; the world’s highest summit.
Before the new Tibetan fossil was discovered, the oldest big cat fossil was discovered in Africa. Anthropologists dated this African fossil at 3.8 million years old; however the new fossil in Tibet is suggested to be between 4.1 and 5.95 million years old.
The skull fragments were discovered during an expedition in Tibet in August 2010 and support a long-standing theory that big cats evolved from the region of central Asia before dispersing across the world. The fossil discovery by Chinese and US paleontologists has been named Panthera blytheae and was reported in the online journal Proceedings of the Royal Society.
When paleobiologist Jack Tseng and his assistants, Xiamong Wang and Juan Lui, set out on an expedition to scout potential digging sites on August 7, 2010 they did not expect to come across such a significant discovery.
After the team started digging it became evident that they had discovered an actual fossil bed. This bed of well-preserved fossils first revealed the expected fragments of fox, horse, antelope, and other hoofed animals. Then the team saw something striking sticking out of the dirt. Tseng and his assistants had discovered a partial carnivorous lower jaw with characteristics that immediately signaled to the team that something special had been discovered.
The team, excited by this first discovery, continued digging in the bed and uncovered the top of a skull. This skull also had the characteristic wide snout and tapered jaw of a big cat. The lower jaw discovered earlier was exciting however this almost complete skull would be able to provide scientists with the data needed to pinpoint the feline’s family tree.
The precious skull was taken from Tibet on a weeklong road trip to Beijing and from there was flown as Tseng’s carry-on luggage in a custom-made plaster casing to Los Angeles. Upon arrival in Los Angeles, the skull was transported to a Los Angeles lab where the feline ancestry of the oldest big cat fossil was confirmed.
To find such a complete fossil skull is extremely rare and the scientists carefully compared each and every bone in both skull and jaw to the present day’s cat species. The results showed the scientists that this feline fossil was a sister of the snow leopard we see today which suggests the incredible adaptability of the predator’s species over millions of years.
The Himalayan fossil bed revealed other surprising discoveries besides the discovery of the feline skull. A large variety of species were found, including other Tibetan big cats, Tibetan antelopes, and blue sheep. This reveals a connection of species that takes the scientists back millions of years, and shows that the Tibetan Plateau was a type of environmental refuge for the animals.
The new fossil discovery in Tibet could hold more value than just the oldest big cat and scientists are excited to continue investigating the potential in the environmental refuge.
Written by: Jessica Rosslee
Journal reference: Proceedings of the Royal Society B, DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2013.2686