USC alumnus discovers big cat fossils in Tibet

On Wednesday, a team of scientists announced that fossil fragments they discovered in Tibet on an expedition begun in 2011 led by Jack Tseng — who was a Ph.D. candidate at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences at the time — were the oldest fossils found of a “big cat” to date.

The fragments, which consist of seven skull fragments from three individual ancient cat specimens, were discovered in a remote location just north of the Himalayan mountains in Tibet. Tseng received his Ph.D. in integrative and evolutionary biology from Dornsife.

A skull from the new species, named Panthera blytheae, was found to be both remarkably large and intact. The new fossils challenge previous notions of how big cats evolved and provide significant clues to the evolutionary chain, according to the scientists involved. It is speculated that the remains are from 4 to 5.95 million years ago. The findings were published in a scientific paper by the Proceedings of the Royal Society. Before these findings, the oldest discovered big cat fossil, which was found in Tanzania, was 3.8 million years old.

Tseng, now a postdoctoral fellow at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, said that he has also found other fossils in the same region in past years.

“For me personally, it’s the first discovery that is getting a lot of attention,” he said. “I’ve described fossil species before. For our research team, collectively speaking, this is one of three pretty significant discoveries we’ve already made from this area.”

Tseng’s past discoveries have included ancient ancestors of rhinoceroses as well as findings of three-toed horses. Modern horses are commonly thought to have only one toe or none at all.

Working in the Tibetan autonomous region was not always easy, Tseng said. The region is known for its political conflicts between China’s government and Tibet’s. The archaeological team faced obstacles ranging from being quarantined at military checkpoints to construction blocking roads. Tseng and his team, however, usually tried to travel to the region for a few weeks every summer.

“Some of those years that we did not go was not because we didn’t want to go,” Tseng said. “For example, in 2008, because the Summer Olympics were in Beijing, that year our research permit was denied. They didn’t want a lot of people going to these border regions since they were busy trying to help security with the Olympics.”

One of Tseng’s collaborators was Xiaoming Wang, who holds joint appointments as a professor at USC and a curator at the National History Museum of Los Angeles. The research team also included faculty from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, as well as from the Smithsonian Institution.

Wang noted that Tseng had the to opportunity to study a variety of scientific fields at USC.

“Jack Zheng was from a program that we call Integrative Evolutionary Biology and that program is designed to encourage collaboration between USC and the Natural History Museum, where I work,” Wang said. “So it is extremely gratifying to see that this kind of collaboration bears fruit and have students go through this kind of program so that they get exposed to the best of the university and also to what the Natural History Museum has to offer.”

Many students were excited about Zheng and Wang’s relationship to USC, and what the discovery meant for the university.

“One of the reasons why I came to USC is because we have a lot of Nobel and science prize winners,” said Michelle Zhao, a freshman majoring in health and humanity. “It’s impressive and it’s living up to USC’s reputation.”

Other students were also interested in the scientific aspects of the findings.

“It’s really cool that USC was so involved with such an important discovery. Scientists are always learning more about the evolutionary history of life and new discoveries like this emphasize more than ever how much there is that we still don’t know,” said Sarah French, a freshman majoring in biophysics.


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