Bones from millions of years ago show big cats first roared in Asia
LOS ANGELES — Scientists are studying the bones of a newly discovered kind of ancient leopard. Those bones and other remains are shaking up old ideas. They suggest that big cats first arose in Asia, not Africa.
The new kind of big cat was discovered by paleontologists in Tibet. It was found in 2010. Paleontologists are scientists who study ancient bones known as fossils.
The newly discovered leopard does have one close relative: the modern snow leopard.
The remains of seven cats were found. The fossils range in age from 4.1 million to 5.9 million years old. They are as much as 2 million years older than any big cat fossils previously found.
Ancient Big Cat Roamed Tibet
The new cat is called Panthera blytheae. It was slightly smaller than the snow leopard. It probably roamed the Tibetan mountains for several million years. There it ate antelope and other animals.
Paleontologist Zhijie Jack Tseng was the leader of the new study of the fossils. He works at New York's American Museum of Natural History.
The newly found cat is probably part of a separate branch of the cat family, said Tseng. The modern snow leopard is most likely part of the same branch. Both are able to live high in the Tibetan mountains.
Big cats present serious problems for paleontologists. They have existed millions of years longer than people have. But they didn't leave behind many fossils. So there are still many things we don't know about them.
Scientists don't only study big cats by looking at their bones. They also look at their genes, or DNA. To do this, they look at the DNA of living species, or types, of big cat.
The DNA studies show various things. Big cats split off from other cats about 11 million years ago. Then about 6 million years ago another big change occurred. Big cats split into several different species. They became lions, tigers, jaguars and leopards.
A Puzzle To Solve
But there's a problem: What scientists find by looking at big cat DNA doesn't agree with what the fossils tell them. Scientists are hoping to figure out where big cats first appeared. But the two kinds of evidence don't point to the same place.
“If you only looked at the fossil, it would suggest Africa," Tseng said. "If you only looked at DNA, it would suggest Asia." Scientists haven't been able to make the two kinds of evidence match up.
Scientists hope the new fossils will solve this puzzle. Tseng and the others looked at the evolutionary tree for big cats. Evolutionary trees trace which species come from which. They also show where new species split off from older ones.
The scientists made changes to the evolutionary tree based on the new fossils. Then they compared the new tree to the DNA evidence.
What they found supports the DNA-based theory: Big cats most likely originated in Asia.
Fascinated By Snow Leopards
Panthera blytheae was named in honor of Blythe Haaga. She is the daughter of Paul and Heather Haaga. Both parents are longtime supporters of the American Museum of Natural History.
Paul used to work for the museum. He already had the smallest known dinosaur species named for his family. This is known as the Fruitadens haagarorum. His wife Heather suggested naming the ancient leopard species for their daughter, Blythe.
As a child, Blythe was fascinated by snow leopards. This began when she was given a stuffed toy snow leopard. She now is a comedian and a writer. She lives in both Chicago and Los Angeles. The family timed the honor for Blythe's 30th birthday.
Blythe found out about her birthday honor on Monday. Just how important the fossils are was kept quiet until the new study was published. “Now I’m super honored,” she said when told of the study’s findings. “I was just honored before.”
The snow leopard “was the stuffed animal that I loved," Blythe said. "Every book report was on snow leopards for a long time after that. It became my fascination for a while.”