The Pantherine Felids, or Big Cats, are one of the most conspicuous and charismatic Mammal groups alive today, comprising the Leopards, Lions, Tigers, and Jagaurs. The group are top predators in many ecosystems today, but have a relatively short fossil record, with the earliest known fossils from the group dating from the Pliocene of Africa, about 3.8 million years ago. While the earliest known Pantherines to date have come from Africa, phylogenetic analysis of the group suggests that it originated in Asia, with the African members of the group being closely related and of fairly recent origin.
In a paper published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society: SeriesB Biological Sciences on 13 November 2013, a group of scientists led by Jack Tseng of the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of SouthernCalifornia, the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology at the Natural HistoryMuseum of Los Angeles County and the Division of Paleontology at the American Museumof Natural History, describe a new species of Pantherine Felid from the Zanda Basin of Tibet.
The new species is named Panthera blytheae, in honour of the daughter of Paul and Heather Haaga (presumably Blythe Haaga, though this is not actually stated), for their ‘avid support’ of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. The species is described from a diagenetically compressed skull, which has been reconstructed using high-resolution X-ray computer tomography.
Cranium of Pantherablytheae (a) Three-dimensional reconstruction of cranium, dorsal view. (b) Cranium dorsal view. (c) Three-dimensional reconstruction of cranium, left lateral view. (d ) Cranium left lateral view. (e) Three-dimensional reconstruction of cranium, ventral view. (f ) Cranium ventral view. f.s.,frontal sinus; mx., maxilla; pmx., premaxilla; n., nasal; i.f., infraorbital foramen; j., jugal; sq., squamosal; C, upper canine; P3, upper third premolar; P4, upper fourthpremolar (carnassial), P2.a, alveolus of upper second premolar. Tseng et al. (2013).
The specimen from which the species is described is thought to be approximately 4.42 million years old (Pliocene), but a number of other fragmentary fossils (mostly teeth and fragments of jaw) are referred to the species, which date from between 5.95 and 4.10 million years ago (Late Miocene to Early Pliocene), extending the chronologic range of Panthera blytheae back about 2 million years earlier than any previously described Pantherine species.
Stratigraphicranges of previously known fossil record of Pantherinae (Panthera & Neofelis), compared with the age of Panthera blytheae and previous divergence time estimatebased on molecular data and nodal calibration points. Tseng et al. (2013).
Phylogentically Panthera blytheae is calculated to be nested within a group of Asian Pantherines, closely related to the modern Snow Leopard, Panther auncia. Tseng et al. suggest that taken along with other fossils from the Zanda Basin, such as Horses, Foxes and Sheep, Panthera blytheae serves to support a model in which an ecosystem similar to that found in parts of the Himalayas today was starting to form in what was then a rapidly uplifting area in a young mountain range. They further suggest that the subsequent spread and success of the Big Cats was connected to the cooling climate of the Plio-Pleistocene, which served to spread similar conditions across much of the Northern Hemisphere, facilitating the spread of species pre-adapted to such environments.
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