Scientists have found the oldest fossil of a big cat, a discovery that suggests that the predator first lived in Asia and then moved to other parts of the world.
The nearly complete skull dug up in Tibet was estimated to be 4.4 million years old — older than the big-cat remains recovered from Tanzania in Africa from about 3.7 million years ago, the research team reported.
Although the new specimen is not a direct ancestor of tigers, lions and jaguars, it is closely related to the snow leopard, said study leader Jack Tseng of the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
In 2010, Tseng and colleagues went fossil hunting in the Himalayas. The team split up to cover more ground. Tseng’s wife, Juan Liu, found a trove of scattered bones and radioed others to help collect them. As they started digging, they found a cat skull about the size of a large grapefruit.
By analyzing the surrounding rocks and soil, the researchers determined the skull’s age.
The fossil is “convincingly older than the current record holder,” said David Polly, an Indiana University paleontologist. (That’s a scientist who studies fossils.)
The newest fossil has a broad forehead similar to a snow leopard’s, and its front teeth are heavily worn. It probably weighed about 50 pounds.