Ancient Cheetah Fossil Points to Old World Roots?

Rebecca Carroll
for National Geographic News
December 29, 2008

The most primitive known cheetahs roamed present-day China more than two million years ago, according to new research.

The study supports the theory that the big cats originated in the Old World, not North America.

Researchers examined and named a new species of prehistoric cheetah. A nearly complete fossil cranium of the new species, found in China's Gansu Province, is similar in size and shape to modern cheetah skulls, researchers found.

But some of its teeth are extremely primitive, said study co-author Ji H. Mazák of the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum.

This "mosaic of anatomical features" suggests the Chinese cheetah, called Acinonyx kurteni, represents an early stage in cheetah evolution, he said.

The varied traits also indicate skull and dental characteristics considered unique to cheetahs evolved gradually, according to the study published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Throwing a potential wrench in the new discovery, other scientists say they had already identified the species and given it another name.

All American?

The cheetah, the fastest land animal, is a highly threatened species with an estimated adult population of only 7,500, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

The only known wild cheetah population outside of Africa today is a critically endangered group of fewer than a hundred in Iran.

(See pictures of the rare Iranian cats caught in a camera trap.)

But fossils of cheetah-like animals have been found throughout Africa, Europe, Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and even North America that date to between 3.2 million and 2,000 years old, Mazák said.

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