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.
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