US and Chinese palaeontologists have discovered the skull fragments of a previously unknown pre-historic big cat similar to a snow leopard in the highlands of Tibet.
Dr. Jack Tseng and his colleagues from the American Museum of Natural History in New York uncovered the newly-named Panthera blytheae in 2010 and believe the fossil dates from between 4.1 and 5.9 million years old.
The findings are published in the Royal Society journal and help shed light on the evolutionary origin of big cats, supporting the theory they evolved in central Asia and not Africa.
“This fossil ties up a lot of questions we had on how these animals evolved and spread throughout the world,” explained Dr. Tseng.
Relatively little is known of the origin of big cats. The earliest fossils previously found were just 3.6 million years old - tooth fragments discovered by British palaeontologist Mary Leakey in Tanzania.
Genetic analysis has previously suggested that big cats — the Pantherinae subfamily — diverged from their smaller cousins the Felinae — which includes cougars, lynxes, and domestic cats — approximately 6.37 million years ago.
Scientists now believe that the latest discovery indicates that the evolutionary origin of the big cats occurred earlier than thought.
It was previously suggested that the genus Panthera (lions, tigers, leopards, jaguars) and the genus Neofelis (snow leopards) did not separate until 3.7 million years ago - which the new find by Dr. Tseng and his team disproves.
The geographical location of the find is also of great interest to scientists because the habitats of many of today’s big cat species overlap with the Himalayas.