Cat's Cradle

The big cats are always popular species in zoos or programs on television. We seem to be drawn to predators at the top of the food chain. It’s pretty much like a “big boys club” where we all have similar proclivities. Unfortunately, the big cats are under increasing survival pressures and some may not be with us much longer.

Tigers are one species that is struggling to survive and few of us want to see it disappear, but how old is the tiger? The pantherine species stretches back about 1.5 M years, but boiling them up and looking at their molecules you have left in the vat indicate that the tiger could have diverged as a separate species as recently as 100k years.

Mazák, Christiansen and Kitchener, have been busy with their picks and shovels in the Gansu province of China (1). Gansu is central-north China next to Inner Mongolia and a long way from Beijing – it’s a place with lots of Tibetan monasteries. Well, they have dug up a fossil skull which looks very much like that of our tiger buddy’s. A little smaller, but in most other ways similar.

It has been given the name P. zdanskyi and is the closest relative of P. tigris. It is more than 2 M years old, so tigers are an older species than we thought. This new family member is called the Longdan tiger. It was smaller than the current species, but the suggestion is that the food now comes in bigger parcels than it did in those days so the current family members are larger.

It seems a pity that a neighbor who has been around for more than 2M years should be looking at a lack of accommodation in the near future. Surely we can find space for such a beautiful creature.


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