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, 6 (10), e25483

Oldest Known Pantherine Skull and Evolution of the Tiger


Oldest Known Pantherine Skull and Evolution of the Tiger

Ji H Mazák et al. PLoS One.

Erratum in

  • PLoS One. 2012;7(1). doi: 10.1371/annotation/a60b7ac3-7f06-465b-a8df-2f359d59a021


The tiger is one of the most iconic extant animals, and its origin and evolution have been intensely debated. Fossils attributable to extant pantherine species-lineages are less than 2 MYA and the earliest tiger fossils are from the Calabrian, Lower Pleistocene. Molecular studies predict a much younger age for the divergence of modern tiger subspecies at <100 KYA, although their cranial morphology is readily distinguishable, indicating that early Pleistocene tigers would likely have differed markedly anatomically from extant tigers. Such inferences are hampered by the fact that well-known fossil tiger material is middle to late Pleistocene in age. Here we describe a new species of pantherine cat from Longdan, Gansu Province, China, Panthera zdanskyi sp. nov. With an estimated age of 2.55-2.16 MYA it represents the oldest complete skull of a pantherine cat hitherto found. Although smaller, it appears morphologically to be surprisingly similar to modern tigers considering its age. Morphological, morphometric, and cladistic analyses are congruent in confirming its very close affinity to the tiger, and it may be regarded as the most primitive species of the tiger lineage, demonstrating the first unequivocal presence of a modern pantherine species-lineage in the basal stage of the Pleistocene (Gelasian; traditionally considered to be Late Pliocene). This find supports a north-central Chinese origin of the tiger lineage, and demonstrates that various parts of the cranium, mandible, and dentition evolved at different rates. An increase in size and a reduction in the relative size of parts of the dentition appear to have been prominent features of tiger evolution, whereas the distinctive cranial morphology of modern tigers was established very early in their evolutionary history. The evolutionary trend of increasing size in the tiger lineage is likely coupled to the evolution of its primary prey species.

Conflict of interest statement

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.


Figure 1
Figure 1. Holotype of Panthera zdanskyi sp. nov. BIOPSI 00177 (Babiarz Institute of Paleontological Studies) from the earliest Pleistocene of Longdan, Dongxiang County, Gansu Province, China in A, lateral; and B, ventral views; C, lateral view of mandible.
The skull measures as follows (in mm): greatest skull length, 264.0; condylobasal length, 236.3; nasal length, 81.6; mandible length, 167.8; and mandible posterior height, 85.4. Dental measurements are as follows (in mm): C1 height, 56.0; C1 alveolar length, 24.0; C1 alveolar width, 16.7; P4 length, 31.7; P4 width, 17.0; P3 length, 22.0; P3 width, 10.0; P2 length, 5.5; C1 height, 40.5; C1; alveolar length, 21.9; C1 alveolar width, 13.0; M1 length, 24.6; M1 width, 10.7; P4 length, 21.7; P4 width; P3 length, 15.4; P3 width, 9.7.
Figure 2
Figure 2. Paratype of Panthera zdanskyi sp. nov. IVPP13538.
Figure 3
Figure 3. Strict consensus cladogram of two equally parsimonious trees of Pantherinae relationships (L = 103; CI = 0.66; HI = 0.34; RI = 0.65; RC = 0.43) based on 523 ingroup (Neofelis; Panthera) and 37 outgroup (Leopardus pardalis; Puma concolor) specimens from computed in PAUP.
Panthera zdanskyi is the sistertaxon of P. tigris. Bootstrap values indicated are 1000 replications. Art work by Velizar Simeonovski (Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago).
Figure 4
Figure 4. The shape of the cranium in Panthera spp. and Neofelis nebulosa analysed through a geometric morphometric thin plate splines analysis based on 16 landmarks, collectively capturing the overall shape of the cranium.
Figure 5
Figure 5. UPGMA distance-matrix tree constructed based on relative warp scores on a geometric morphometric analysis of cranial shape in the Pantherinae.
The tree topology is broadly congruent with current knowledge on Pantherinae relationships based on parsimony analyses. Panthera zdanskyi is the sistertaxon to P. tigris, consistent with the tiger-like cranial morphology of P. zdanskyi.
Figure 6
Figure 6. The shape of the mandible in Panthera spp. and Neofelis nebulosa analysed through a geometric morphometric thin plate splines analysis based on 18 landmarks, collectively capturing the overall shape of the mandible.
Figure 7
Figure 7. Artist's reconstruction of the Longdan tiger (Panthera zdanskyi sp. nov.), illustrated by Velizar Simeonovski (Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago).
Myology reconstruction was done according to current knowledge of felid soft part anatomy, but coat morphology is tentative.
Figure 8
Figure 8. The size-change of tigers through the Late Pliocene-Pleistocene, using carnassial (P4 and M1) crown lengths and p3-M1 length.
Sample localities are: Longdan (Gansu); Trinil (Java); Lantian (Shanxi); Liucheng (Guangxi); Wanxian (Sichuan); Fuming (Yunnan); Zhoukoudian (Beijing); Shandindong (Beijing).
Figure 9
Figure 9. A UPGMA cluster analysis constructed from squared Euclidean distances derived from a Principal Components Analysis (PCA) on craniomandibular and dental proportions in putative tiger subspecies.

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