From ‘third pole’ to north pole: a Himalayan origin for the arctic fox

Xiaoming Wang, Zhijie Jack Tseng, Qiang Li, Gary T. Takeuchi, Guangpu Xie

Abstract

The ‘third pole’ of the world is a fitting metaphor for the Himalayan–Tibetan Plateau, in allusion to its vast frozen terrain, rivalling the Arctic and Antarctic, at high altitude but low latitude. Living Tibetan and arctic mammals share adaptations to freezing temperatures such as long and thick winter fur in arctic muskox and Tibetan yak, and for carnivorans, a more predatory niche. Here, we report, to our knowledge, the first evolutionary link between an Early Pliocene (3.60–5.08 Myr ago) fox, Vulpes qiuzhudingi new species, from the Himalaya (Zanda Basin) and Kunlun Mountain (Kunlun Pass Basin) and the modern arctic fox Vulpes lagopus in the polar region. A highly hypercarnivorous dentition of the new fox bears a striking resemblance to that of V. lagopus and substantially predates the previous oldest records of the arctic fox by 3–4 Myr. The low latitude, high-altitude Tibetan Plateau is separated from the nearest modern arctic fox geographical range by at least 2000 km. The apparent connection between an ancestral high-elevation species and its modern polar descendant is consistent with our ‘Out-of-Tibet’ hypothesis postulating that high-altitude Tibet was a training ground for cold-environment adaptations well before the start of the Ice Age.

  • Received April 14, 2014.
  • Accepted May 15, 2014.
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