Fossilized Lynx skulls from Southern Italy provide a window into the Evolutionary History of the Endangered Lynx pardinus

The tale of a short-tailed cat: New outstanding late Pleistocene fossils of Lynx pardinus from southern Italy

Mecozzi, B., Sardella, R., Boscaini, A., Cherin, M., Costeur, L., Madurell-Malapeira, J., Pavia, M., Profico, A., & Iurino, D. A.

Summarized by Vincent Levin, a geology major at the University of South Florida in his third year. He loves geochemistry and is contemplating graduate school. While he isn’t splitting rocks with a tile saw, Vincent loves to spend time at the USF Catholic Student Union, where he is a very active member and part of their leadership team. He also enjoys video games and playing the bass guitar. 

What data were used? This study was conducted on the fossilized remains of a group of large cats, the lynxes, and particularly the Iberian lynxes (Lynx pardinus) (L. pardinus). These fossils were found at the site of Ingarano in Foggia, South Italy. Unearthed there were 415 late Pleistocene Lynx remains. Of these remains, this study focuses exclusively on craniodental fossils, or fossils of the skull and teeth. 

Methods: The fossils were gathered throughout the 1990s by different researchers. To collect the data used in the study, they used CT scans and CT imaging software on the complete skull fossils. This allowed them to create 3D models of the two skulls. They also used ZBrush 4R6, a modeling software, to restore missing points of the skull. They also incorporated other Lynx fossil data from different sites in France, Spain, and other parts of Italy. Lastly, they estimated Lynx body mass using a method that uses skull measurements to determine overall body mass.

This is a map of Europe and part of the middle east. The fossils of Lynx issiodorensis, Lynx pardinus, Lynx lynx, Lynx sp., and the Lynx remains from the Ingarano site are listed here. Lynx pardinus fossils have been found ranging from the middle to late Pleistocene, moving from France and Italy into Spain. The Lynx remains from the Ingarano site are represented by a pink circle in Southern Italy.
The geographic distribution of Pliocene and Pleistocene lynx fossils in Europe. This figure covers a large portion of Europe and shows the distribution of the different species of lynx. In pink is the Ingarano site in southern Italy. The Iberian Lynx, in green, is shown to arise in the early Pleistocene and spread into the Iberian peninsula and into modern day France and Italy.

Results: Researchers determined that all of the cranial remains contained permanent teeth, indicating that they were all from adult cats. Many of the skull pieces and whole skulls still retained many upper teeth, which were beneficial in the final analysis. The lower teeth and mandibles (jawbones) also showed that all the remains were from adult specimens. However, these fossils showed much more size variation, and none of the lower incisors were preserved.

All the characteristics of the fossils found fit the overall morphology of L. pardinus. Overall, the Ingarano samples have larger cranial dimensions than other data sets. They concluded that there was also little sexual dimorphism, with the male to female body mass ratio being mostly equal. Sexual dimorphism is what accounts for biological differences between the sexes of a species.. Due to the limited sample size, it is hard to determine a correlation between Lynx body size and any potential environmental factors.

The most important result of this study was found in the cranium (skull) fossils. The cranium fossils provided a new insight into the evolutionary history of Lynx issiodorensis (L. issiodorensis) as a possible ancestor to Lynx pardinus and the still-living Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx). L. issiodorensis, hypothesized to be representative of an ancestor of the modern Lynx, was shown to have similar cranial features to L. pardinus. The data found in this study supported the hypothesis that these cranial features were homologous, or features inherited from an ancestor. 

Why is this study important? This study compiled data on 68 craniodental (skull and teeth) Lynx fossils. Teeth and skulls are an important window into the morphology, what it looked like, and ecology, how it lived and interacted with its environment. Many of the studies done on Lynx fossils have lacked any substantial cranium (skull) data. This study was able to add that to the overall discussion on Lynx evolutionary history. Lynx evolutionary history was hard to nail down due to the coexistence of the two modern species of Lynx, Lynx pardinus and Lynx lynx, during the same time period. The addition of the cranium data added some clarity to the overall discussion.

The big picture: The Iberian Lynx (L. pardinus) is currently endangered. This study adds to a decades-long effort to better understand the ecological and biological characteristics of these cats. This could add data to create better conservation efforts for the preservation of this species against natural and manmade threats. 

Citation: Mecozzi, B., Sardella, R., Boscaini, A., Cherin, M., Costeur, L., Madurell-Malapeira, J., Pavia, M., Profico, A., & Iurino, D. A. (2021). The tale of a short-tailed cat: New outstanding Late Pleistocene fossils of Lynx pardinus from southern Italy. Quaternary Science Reviews, 262, 106840.

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