Home of the big cats

Where is the king of beasts' ancestral home? James Mitchell Crow investigates.

Lions are living a long way from where they started out.

The king of the beasts is living a long way from its ancestral home. A recent fossil find in Tibet strengthens the theory big cats evolved in central Asia, not Africa, and later colonised the African plains.

Big cats – a group including lions, tigers, jaguars and leopards – diverged from the rest of the cat family at least six million years ago. But a gap in the fossil record left big questions about when and where. Until now, the oldest known fossils were a handful of 3.6 million-year-old tooth fragments found in Tanzania.

The newly found fossils are much older and more complete. They were discovered in the remote Himalayas in 2010 by a team led by Jack Tseng of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The researchers spent three years analysing DNA and anatomical evidence to conclude the bones are from a previously unknown, extinct species named Panthera blythese, a close relative to the modern snow leopard.

Research published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B shows that the fossils are between 4.1 and 5.95 million years old. The find includes a near-complete skull.

Tseng predicts that more fossils are waiting to be discovered, and plans to return to Tibet next year.

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