Tibet's 6m-year-old cat rewrites history books

19th Nov 2013

Tibet has unearthed the world's oldest cat species.

Early estimates date the creature at nearly six million years old.

Holidaymakers on group tours have been attracted to cultural sites in this Chinese plateau region for decades; including the stunning Potala Palace in Lhasa, the Buddhist winter home of the Dalai Lama since the seventh century.

This latest discovery continues the world's fascination with Tibet.

The creature's skull was found in the Himalayas and suggests the new-found feline is related to the endangered snow leopard.

The Panthera blytheae also sheds new light on the evolution of lions, jaguars and tigers.

Archaeologists used magnetostratigraphy to estimate the skull to be between 4.1 to 5.95 million years old.

This is the fossil-dating technique based on the distinctive patterns of reversals in the Earth's magnetic field that are recorded in layers of rock.

It suggests that big cats originated in central Asia, not Africa.

DNA evidence indicates that large cats; including lions, jaguars, tigers, leopards, snow leopards and clouded leopards, separated from their closest evolutionary cousins Felinae - typified by cougars, lynxes and domestic cats - around 6.37 million years ago.

Previously, the oldest big cat fossils were found in Tanzania in the 1970s dating back 3.6 million years.

The latest find was made in a region that includes most of today's big cat habitats and suggests the group evolved in central Asia and spread outwards.

Dr Jack Tseng, of the American Museum of Natural History, New York, his wife Dr Juan Liu of Alberta University in Canada and Dr Gary Takeuchi, of the Natural History Museum, found the skull three years ago.

They were scouting in the isolated border region between Pakistan and China.

Dr. Liu found crushed, but mainly intact, remains of the skull next to a river.

They have used both anatomical and DNA data over the last three years to verify that the skull does represent a new species.

They hope to revisit to the site next summer to search for further specimens.

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