DreamWorks Animation’s enormously popular Kung Fu Panda franchise revolves around the adventures of Po (a Giant Panda obsessed with Kung Fu). In the first installment,  he rescues the Valley of Peace from a vengeful Tai Lung (a Snow Leopard) with the assistance of Master Shifu (a Red Panda) and his disciples, the Furious Five (Tigress, Monkey, Crane, Viper and Mantis). While the film is choc-a-bloc with all things Chinese  (martial arts, firecrackers and noodles), the selection of (animal) characters is  especially interesting. Giant Pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), Red Pandas (Ailurus fulgens), Tigers (Panthera tigris) and Snow Leopards (Panthera uncia) count among the most easily recognizable mammals of the Chinese wilderness.

I am especially interested in the inclusion of the two big cats. While their power and agility can be seen as key qualities in the practice of martial arts, there’s more to their Chinese connection than just Kung Fu. It has been mentioned in the previous post that Tigers and Snow Leopards are most closely related to each other. They are, what one might call cousins, who split from a single lineage some 3.2 million years ago. It is highly probable that the Tiger-Snow Leopard lineage evolved in East Asia (around 3.9 million years ago), in what is now the People’s Republic of China. Along with the Jaguar-Leopard-Lion lineage, they formed the subfamily Pantherinae of the cat family, Felidae.

There are a number of clues that point towards China as the evolutionary cradle of these big cats. One is the morphology of the South China Tiger (Panthera tigris amoyensis). This critically endangered subspecies, now extinct in the wild, is thought to be the most ‘primitive’ of all. Some zoologists hold that it displays the features of ancestral Tiger populations found in southern China and northern Indochina. It was from this region that they spread north (to Korea, Russia and Japan), south (to the Malay Archipelago) and east (South Asia). The other clue lies in the distribution of the Snow Leopard. Its range describes an arc (of mountains and plateaus) around the People’s Republic.

This arc runs anti-clockwise, along the Sayan, Tannu-Ola, Altay, Tian Shan, Pamir, Karakorum and Kunlun Shan Mountains, enclosing the Tibetan Plateau – the realm of the  Snow Leopard. The southeastern corner of the Plateau terminates in the provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan, blessed with a subtropical climate, ample rain, lush forests and unparalleled biodiversity. They are at the junction of southern China and northern Indochina, where Tigers are said to have evolved into their present form. What makes it even more interesting is the discovery of a skull from a member of the subfamily Pantherinae in China in 2004. Here are the particulars of that skull:

  • Unearthed from the eastern slope of Longdan Village in  Gansu Province (northern China).
  • Said to be from a creature nicknamed the Longdan Tiger (after the village), which has been given the scientific name Panthera zdanskyi.
  • Dated back to 2.55-2.16 million years ago (Early Pleistocene).
  • From a male specimen and measuring 26 cm, halfway between a Jaguar’s (22 cm) and Tiger’s (30 cm).
  • Indicates a species that was closely related to Tigers but smaller (around the size of a big Jaguar).

Longdan Tiger was what one would refer to as the sister species of the modern Tiger. It was already adapted to hunting similar prey (a fact reflected in the great similarity of its skull to that of its contemporary cousins). Biologists believe that tigers grew larger and larger in keeping with their prey. These included the cervids (deer species) and bovids (cattle, goat, antelope species) that were spreading across East, Southeast and South Asia. While the discovery has added to the probability of the People’s Republic being the homeland of ancestral Tigers, one cannot miss the irony of its descendants (South China Tigers) fighting for their very survival.

Image Attribution: The image above is sourced from Wikimedia Commons and shows a painting (Great Tiger) by the German painter, author and illustrator Friedrich Wilhelm Kuhnert (1865-1926). He studied at the Berlin University of the Arts, traveled across Europe, Africa and Asia and illustrated highly acclaimed books such as ‘Animal Life on Earth’ and ‘Brehms Tierleben’.