The complex evolution of the big cats

Big cat evolution!

Why Evolution Is True

A new paper in Science Advances by Henrique V. Figueiró et al. (reference below, free download with legal UnPaywall app) resolves the contested phylogeny (family tree) of five big cat species: lion, leopard, jaguar, snow leopard, and tiger. In so doing, the researchers uncovered some interesting evolutionary history.

Previously, the family tree of this group had been a bit confusing, as different genes gave different phylogenies. That’s normal for recently evolved species (the speciation in this group occurred within the last 4.5 million years), for the genes that were variable in the common ancestors could remain variable in the descendants, and depending on which gene you looked at, you could find evolutionary phylogenies that were really the histories of the genes themselves rather than the history of the species that contained them. But there was another reason for the confusing phylogenies as well, and we’ll get to that shortly.


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