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Oldest big cat fossil found in the Himalayas


MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JULY 01: A Snow Leopard enjoys the snow as snow and ice sculptures are installed to create a winter wonderland at Melbourne Zoo on July 1, 2009 in Melbourne, Australia. The snow has been brought in from Mount Buller in a promotion for the Victorian ski resort. (Photo by Lucas Dawson/Getty Images)


Lucas Dawson

Scientists have discovered the most ancient big cat fossils on record in the Himalayas, in a find that will hopefully help explain how these predators spread throughout the world.

The study, published this week by American and Chinese paleontologists in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, describes early pantherine fossils estimated to be between 4.1 and 5.95 million years old. That's older than the ancient big cat fossils found in Africa, previously the oldest known examples.

More from GlobalPost: Scientists map the genomes of big cats for the first time 

The skulls researchers described were found on the chilly Tibetan plateau and appear to represent a sister species to the still-existent (and elusive) snow leopard. 

"This cat is a sister of living snow leopards — it has a broad forehead and a short face. But it's a little smaller — the size of clouded leopards," said lead author Dr Jack Tseng of the University of Southern California, according to the BBC. 

"This ties up a lot of questions we had on how these animals evolved and spread throughout the world," Tseng added. "Biologists had hypothesised that big cats originated in Asia. But there was a division between the DNA data and the fossil record."

Scientists previously believed that the oldest big cats hailed from Africa, about 3.8 million years ago. But new theories indicate that the big cats diverted from the Felinae (smaller cats, including the one you own) about 6.37 million years ago, according to RedOrbit

Here's footage from the Brookfield Zoo of the existing — and adorable — snow leopard.