Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Chinese cheetahs and the foundations of Felidae


The cheetah, probably best known from zoology classes as the archetypical bottleneck species, has made headlines as of recent for a suggested Chinese ancestry. More specifically, recently published research by Per Christiansen and Ji H. Mazák seems to indicate a cheetah lineage from the Late Pliocene of Asia as opposed to one stemming from North America (the N.A. origin currently holding the majority opinion).

Although a tremendous find, the fossil skull serving as the basis for this “out of Asia hypothesis” may already be coming under fire. Professor Deng Tao of the Chinese Academy of Sciences is of the opinion that the skull may not be a member of the modern cheetah genus (Acinonyx), but rather the more primitive genus Sivapanther, described previously by his team.

A felid aficionado I am not; however it seems that any isolated find, such as that described by Christiansen and Mazák, may not possess sufficient substance as to assert a clean delineation of any lineage or origin locale. In the case of the cheetah, or any other felid for that matter, such conclusions could be viewed as even more tenuous due to considerable disagreement and recent taxonomic revision in regards to the cat family in general.

Though admittedly fervent about field work and getting my hands dirty, it’s important to take all descriptive and taxonomic labors in context with other taxa related research. In this instance, a review of work performed mapping felid nuclear mitochondrial DNA (numt) would be essential, as would a quick comparison to fossil evidence used in development of standard reference materials, such as that used in conjunction with more collaborative publications (example Mammal Species of the World).

Taken as a whole, the skull is a great find; however I’m inclined to think that the cheetah's story is far from being complete…

P. Christiansen, J. H. Mazak (2009). A primitive Late Pliocene cheetah, and evolution of the cheetah lineage Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106 (2), 512-515 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0810435106

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