Cats. Where did they come from? What were their ancestors like? Do they even like us? A new study could help us answer the first two questions, at least.
The study, published this week in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, concerns an ancient snow leopard skull about the size of a grapefruit that could help us reconcile some of the more perplexing gaps in the feline fossil record.
Prior to this discovery, the oldest big cat fossil was the remains of a 3.7 million-year-old pantherine felid ("big cat") that had been dug up in Tanzania. However, DNA evidence has long suggested that modern big cats like lions, tigers, and leopards had an even older common ancestor in Asia. The thinking goes that big cats diverged from other cats around 11 million years ago, with modern variations appearing 6 million years ago.
So the fossil record points one way while genealogy points another. That's where this snow leopard skull comes in.
Discovered in Tibet in 2010, the skull is somewhere between 4.1 million to 5.9 million years old. That's "convincingly older than the current record holder," says Indiana University paleontologist David Polly, who wasn't involved in the study. This skull thus helps us inch closer to the working theory that big cats are of Asian origin.
This leopard wasn't very big. Study leader Jack Tseng of the American Museum of Natural History in New York and his colleagues estimate it to be just about 50 pounds. It probably dined on antelope and sheep that roamed the Tibetan plateau.
As an added bonus, the researchers' accompanying illustration (at left) looks a bit like a three-wolf moon.
(AP Photo/Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Mauricio Anton, Amazon)
A+ ancient cat art. Would wear.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- Obama just kneecapped Jeb Bush and Chris Christie's 2016 prospects
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- 10 classic Sesame Street moments we wouldn't show today's kids
- It's official: The religious right is calling it quits
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- How science is accelerating our search for alien life
- The dangerously childish morality of liberal ObamaCare supporters
- The slippery slope of Twitter's attempts to stop harassment against women
- The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1: 10 major differences between the book and the movie
- The real story behind Deliver Us From Evil
Subscribe to the Week