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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2009 Jan 13;106(2):512-5. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0810435106. Epub 2008 Dec 29.

A primitive Late Pliocene cheetah, and evolution of the cheetah lineage.

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Zoological Museum, Universitetsparken 15, 2100 Copenhagen O, Denmark.


The cheetah lineage is a group of large, slender, and long-limbed cats with a distinctive skull and dental morphology, of which only the extant cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) is present today. The lineage is characterized by having abbreviated, tall, and domed crania, and a trenchant dentition with a much reduced, posteriorly placed protocone on the upper carnassial. In this article, we report on a new discovery of a Late Pliocene specimen from China with an estimated age of approximately 2.2-2.5 million years, making it one of the oldest specimens known to date. A cladistic analysis confirmed that it is the most primitive cheetah known, and it shares a number of unambiguous derived cranial traits with the Acinonyx lineage, but has more primitive dentition than previously known cheetahs, demonstrating that the many unusual skull and dental characters hitherto considered characteristic of cheetahs evolved in a gradual fashion. Isolated teeth of primitive cheetahs may not be recognizable as such, but can be confused with, for instance, those of leopards or other similar-sized pantherine cats or pumas. The age and morphology of the new specimen supports an Old World origin of the cheetah lineage, not a New World one, as has been suggested. We name the new species Acinonyx kurteni in honor of the late Björn Kurtén.

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