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In Images: The Oldest Big Cat Fossils

cat fossil unearthed in Tibet
Fossil evidence of the oldest big cat found to date was unearthed in the Tibetan plateau (Image credit: Z. Jack Tseng)

Oldest big cat

pantherine skull, the oldest in the world

(Image credit: Gary Takeuchi)

In a 2013 paper, researchers reported on the discovery the oldest known big cat.

Kiang Valley

a view of the himalayas from tibetan plateau

(Image credit: Gary Takeuchi)

The cat was found in the Kiang Valley in Tibet.

Valley view

kiang valley vistas

(Image credit: Gary Takeuchi)

Layers of rock have revealed a trove of fossils.

The skull emerges

cat skull emerges

(Image credit: Z. Jack Tseng)

In 2010, the team, led by Z. Jack Tseng, uncovered the skull of a an ancient pantherine.

Very old

kiang valley

(Image credit: Gary Takeuchi)

By analyzing the orientation of magnetic minerals in the nearby rock, the team was able to determine that the cat lived between 5.9 and 4.1 million years ago.

More fossils

kaing valley in tibet

(Image credit: Gary Takeuchi)

Follow-up trips revealed several more fossils fro the ancient cat.

Excavation site

bonebed excavations

(Image credit: Gary Takeuchi, Z. Jack Tseng)

Here, the researchers excavate at the site.

Ancient cat

big cat illustration

(Image credit: Mauricio Anton)

Despite living at least 4 million years ago, the ancient cat didn't look too different from living big cats such as snow leopards.

Rich site

fossils laid out.

(Image credit: Gary Takeuchi)

The hole where the cat skull was found also contained about 120 other fossils comprising 16 mammal species and one bird.

Rich trove

excavating fossils

(Image credit: Gary Takeuchi)

Here the team unearths the fossils.

Cat family

notes taken on fossil panther

(Image credit: Z. Jack Tseng)

By analyzing the bones and comparing it to living and extinct cats, as well as by using genetic data, the team estimates that all cats diverged about 16 million years ago.

Tia Ghose

Tia is the assistant managing editor and was previously a senior writer for Live Science. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, Wired.com and other outlets. She holds a master's in bioengineering from the University of Washington, a graduate certificate in science writing from UC Santa Cruz and a bachelor's in mechanical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin. Tia was part of a team at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that published the Empty Cradles series on preterm births, which won multiple awards, including the 2012 Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.