The Ghostly Origins of the Big Cats

The Ghostly Origins of the Big Cats


Thank you to ExpressVPN for supporting PBS They’re known for being stealthy, secretive,
and hard to spot. And yet they deeply shape the places where
they live, because they’re some of the largest apex predators on land: the big cats. Back in the Pleistocene Epoch, the so called
American Lion hunted North America. And across Europe, Asia, and Alaska, the Cave
Lion was on the prowl. And like them, today’s tigers and lions
dominate the habitats they call home, while other big cats, like leopards, have adapted
to a variety of environments and spread across entire continents. But for paleontologists, the most elusive
aspect of the big cats is their heritage. All of today’s big cat species evolved less
than 11 million years ago–just a blip in geologic time–and yet their evolutionary
history remains an almost total mystery. The fact is, we don’t know exactly where
and when modern big cats split off from the rest of the cat family tree and diversified
into the species we know today. Their ancestry is so hard for us to make out
that it’s known as a ghost lineage: We simply don’t have enough of fossils to understand
their origins. However! Scientists have recently discovered a major
clue about the origins of the big cats, one that could provide a whole new starting place
for solving this puzzle. Basically, it seems that after decades of
searching for clues about the origins of these predators, we’ve been looking in the wrong
place. What most people mean when they refer to “big
cats” are all the living species of the genus Panthera — that means lions and tigers,
leopards, jaguars, and snow leopards. Cheetahs and cougars are pretty big, and they’re
cats, but they’re not from the genus Panthera, because they are more distantly related to
the “true big cats.” And until very recently, we thought that all
of the big cats evolved in Africa. Which, on the face of it, makes total sense. After all, lions and leopards live in Africa
today, and fossils of big cats and their ancestors have been found in Africa dating back several
million years. But many of those fossils are of modern species–like
our familiar African lions–or of recently extinct species that are very similar. So where did those ancient cats come from? The fact is, we don’t have any record of
the big cats’ ancestors. This is why their ancestors are known as a
ghost lineage, a line of descent that we know exists, but no fossil evidence has been found
for it. At least not yet. So, without fossils–without the remains of
these animals –their lineage on the tree of life is just a big question mark. Take lions, for example. The oldest fossils of modern lions–the species
known as Panthera leo–are about 2 million years old, found at Olduvai in Tanzania. So, at least by 2 million years ago, we know
that modern lions were alive and well, along with modern leopards, which have been found
at the same site. Before that, the oldest evidence we have for
lions’ ancestors are fragmentary fossils of lion-like cats from Laetoli, also in Tanzania,
dated to about 3.5 million-years. But these fossils are almost impossible to
discern from modern species. In fact, some researchers think they actually
are the remains of Panthera leo. And because they’re so fragmentary, the
bits that would help us distinguish them are just … missing. Beyond that, the trail goes cold. We haven’t found fossils for any would-be
proto-lions that led to those big cats found at Laetoli and Olduvai. And the same is true for the rest of the modern
big cats. Fossils of modern-looking leopards are also
found at Laetoli. Before that? Ghost lineage. Likewise, the fossil history of jaguars goes
back about 1.5 million years in North America, and snow leopard fossils from Pakistan may
be as old as 1.4 million years. And as for how they got there? They’re all ghost lineages. Part of why the history of these cats is so
… ghostly … has to do with the cats’ behavior. Cats are predators, which means there are
going to be far fewer of them than prey species in any given area. They also tend to live alone or in small groups
and have large territories that they don’t like to share with other cats. On top of all that, most cat skeletons look
very similar to each other, except for their size, so it’s often really hard, if not
impossible, to know what species you’ve found. Put all of these things together, and you
wind up with relatively few fossils to work with. But even if fossils are scarce, we still have
another option that can help us get to the origin of a species: genetics. With genetic analyses, we can sometimes fill
in the gaps in the fossil record, and one way to do that is by using the molecular clock
method. This method combines what we know — or at
least, what we think — about how often genetic mutations occur, and then applies that to
DNA samples to plot the evolutionary history of various species. But to be accurate, this molecular “clock”
needs to be calibrated using fossils whose species and dates have been identified confidently. And when it comes to the big cats, this clock
is hard to use, for a couple of big reasons: First, some of the fossils we could use for
calibrating our clock, like the big cats from Laetoli, aren’t confidently identified. Because they’re fragmentary and look so
much like modern species, there are some doubts about which species they really are. Meanwhile, other fossils–like the oldest
potential fossil evidence for tigers, for example–aren’t well-dated, so they can’t
be used to calibrate our clock either. The second problem is that big cats evolved
recently and rapidly, which makes it difficult to see farther back in time using their DNA. So, what we need is a well-known and well-dated
fossil to help us better calibrate our analyses. And guess what? We found one! But it wasn’t in Africa, where we’d been
looking all this time. In 2010, fossils of a new species of big cat
were found in the Himalayas. It lived between 4.1 and 5.95 million years
ago and was given the name Panthera blytheae. Based on a partial skull and teeth, this cat
was very similar to the modern snow leopard. So finally, a clue! A glimpse at what might be in that gap between
modern big cats and their earliest ancestors! The discovery of this new Himalayan cat made
possible a whole new analysis of the big cat lineage. So in 2014, scientists combined morphological
data from these new fossils–like skull measurements — with those of other fossil and modern cats. They also compared the DNA of modern cats
to that of two recently extinct big-cat species, the American lion and the Eurasian cave lion. They then added information about the geographic
ranges of modern big cats and studied different models of how they could have spread across
the world. Based on all of this number-crunching, these
data point to big cats originating not in Africa, but in central-northern Asia about
10.72 million years ago. Then, over the next 8 million or so years,
before they start showing up in the fossil record, the big cats rapidly diversified,
first in central-northern Asia and later in Africa and North America. We still have a really wide gap between Panthera
blytheae and the very first big cats that evolved around 10.72 million years ago. And it’s possible that we may never find
fossils to fill in that gap. But if we do, we now know that they’ll most
likely turn up in Asia, not Africa. So the big cats that we have today — the
lions, tigers, leopards, and jaguars — are, for now, the descendants of
ghosts: ancestors whose existence we can infer, but not yet prove. As influential as they are — in the habitats
where they live, and in our imaginations — the full story of these cats remains as elusive
as ever. Thank you to ExpressVPN for supporting PBS. ExpressVPN allows users worldwide to protect
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hackers on the same network from stealing your information. You can learn more at ExpressVPN.com/Eons. Today’s episode was recorded in the Konstantin
Haase studio. Thanks to Konstantin and this month’s Eontologists:
Jake Hart, Jon Ivy, John Davison Ng, and Steve for their support on Patreon. And if you happen to be on Team Dog instead
of Team Cat, then we have options for you! Check out our episode on the rise and fall
of the bone-crushing dogs!

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  1. wouldn't it be funny if, in essence, the reason no big cat ancestor was found is the reverse? their ancestor is so close to them in appearance and everything that in layman's terms they are basically the same thing as their ancestor? the first proto-lion was indeed about 10 million years old but was a lion as we know it today and just inconsequentially/indistinguishabily different

  2. Tiger: I'm the best "cat". Stronger than any other.
    Lion: I'm the best "cat". My mane show my might.
    Domestic cat: look and your prey of old and now hunters, who feed me. I, am the best cat. my psy powers allow me to enslave them.

  3. Scientists check the mountian tops seriously think about it our cats like high places so they can see their little environment so most likely their ancestors bones are most likely at mountain tops and buried beneath the rocks of the crumbling mountians over time.

  4. Massive extinction events create room for species to fill the gaps environments for predators (such as they may be for survivors) to allow for the sudden and rapid evolution of the Big Cats into those niches. As far as how they spread so efficiently across the globe, I figure they heard a can opener somewhere. Hehehehe Also, did you hear about the Arctic Fox with a tracker that crossed the Arctic from Norway to Canada in like 78 days? Granted, it's an Arctic Fox designed to do just that task, but still…. It's not as much of a barrier as once imagined for creatures hardier than we, today.

  5. Just because a certain fossil is found somewhere other than Africa, doesn't mean the species didn't still originate in Africa. At one time all the land masses were connected, so many creatures migrated out of their original homelands for different reasons, ( climate changes, moving herds of prey, etc.)

  6. In Pakistan Domestic Cats and other Small Cats are called as maternal aunts of Lions and Tigers etc…Maybe they knew about their great ancestors….HAHAHAHA……

  7. My cat overheard this audio segment but completely ignored it, sitting on a pillow and sipping red wine by the fire place. I think he knows something.

  8. Can not genetics confirm their lineage in the absence of fossils? I type…and then they explain the problem…

  9. And watch paleontologists find the fossil remains of the big cats ancestors 3-5 years from now which would make this video outdated, inaccurate, and obsolete.

  10. Sekhmet and Bast, the twin daughters of Ra, arrived from Orion and genetically modified some cats to get an A on their science project.

  11. I think their ancestors are running our transportation system. I wonder what kind of vehicles would us and our ancestors be running.
    Wow there was an American Lion.?!!

  12. Seeing videos like this, and watching with my sphynx cat (which is of course, a naturally occurring mutiation) make me wonder if the hairless gene occurred in big cats in the past as well.

  13. So you're telling me modern big cats lived beside saber tooth cats, terror birds, mammoths, woolly rhinos and giant ground sloths?

  14. Ask the Chinese-they'd probably know—(and NO that's not a dig). What about the Romans, they had them in their Coliseum as well as Tigers, etc..

  15. why do people think american lions didn't have a mane? and also if cats orginated in asia how tf did they get to north america, africa, and eurasia? did they build a boat?

  16. Try tracking the known migration of the herd animals which the cats are either known to have hunted or suspected to have hunted. Herd animals are easier to track due to their greater number and our greater depth of knowledge in relation to ecosystem conditions during given time periods: understanding that the herd animals, grazing on particular vegetation will migrate in order to find available food sources. If you zero in on the food source – you'll likely find the animal which fed upon it. Track the migration of the herd animals based on ecology of the time period, understanding that animals will go where the food is – then extrapolate that to tracking the animals which feed on the herd herbivores.

    If you want to track a herbivore – look where you're likely to find herbs: if you want to find a carnivore – look where you're likely to find herbivores. I paused the video at the 5 minute mark, so maybe that's what they did and the video hasn't gotten to that point yet, I'll keep watching. If they didn't manage to figure out that in order to find everything on a food chain: go where the food chain goes – I'm going to be very annoyed.

  17. India had lions, cheetahs, leopards and tigers

    The word cheetah comes from Hindi 'Chittah' which comes from Sanskrit 'Chitraka'.

    But the British hunted almost all the lions and cheetahs into extinction.

  18. This just reinforces my theory that cats are really demons that came to Earth to feed on our souls when we sleep and control our behavior to serve them during the day.

  19. "less than 11 million years ago" is a whopper of an inference to drop and then use as the major foundation for this video's narrative without a single word hinting as to even why that inference is made

  20. Hate to be "that guy", but the European jaguar (Panthera gombaszoegensis) is actually older than the north american one: 2-1,7 m.a. Anyways, love the show!

  21. by a large margine the biggest concentration of Jaguars is in South America between Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, Brazil, Northern Bolivia and Northern Argentina, waaaay more than North America. And yet not a single mention of South America when talking about them

  22. So what scientist have discovered is the same that Plato discovered all we know is that we don't know nothing about big cats cool

  23. I thought lions (panthera leo) evolved from early Pleistocene cave lions aka Panthera leo fossilis or Panthera fossilis which gave rise to late Pleistocene Eurasian cave lions aka Panthera spelaea from which evolved the famous American lions (panthera atrox).

  24. 1:27 Asian Fishing Cat

    Did anyone else picture a lion holding one of those Asian wood fishing poles wearing a rice patty hat, sitting in a tiny wood canoe???

  25. They splited up when 1 cat said

    Cat:Bro let's go walk to another continent for no reason
    Other Cat:NO

    Then they splited up and became new species of cats

  26. This raise an interesting question: If one set of skeleton can be identified into several different species do you think this apply to other fossils as well? What if there's several dinosaur skeletons that look identical but turn out to be several different dinosaurs with different marking, habit and habitat?

  27. It's the first time I hear Scientist saying they honestly don't know. I like it, but then again the question that I have is Why exactly do we need to know where our amazing cats descended from?

  28. The most amazing thing is we can only find the fossils of the certain ones fossilized but we shall never know the history of the missing animal skeletons that did not get fossil

  29. An adage in my culture states an arrow shot is determined by a type of bow…..cats fossils can be determined by their preys…Casper captured

  30. All the basal Panthera species are in Asia and all the species have existed in Asia at some point.

    Guy looking for Big Cat Origins before 2010: "Ima only look in Africa"

    Seems like a likely story doesn't it.

  31. would the lack of fossil evidence possibly infer that the modern species came in a vary similar form to what they are today? perhaps use ancient geography to search in between the Himalayas and Africa. for all we know the ancient big cats could be under the red sea or something lol

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