Fossil teeth discovered in the 1970s actually belonged to a new, remarkably close relative of the modern giant panda.
Scientists have discovered a new species of panda that they say is currently the last known and “highly evolved” European giant panda. It lumbered through the forested wetlands of Bulgaria about six million years ago.
Unearthed from the bowels of the Bulgarian National Museum of Natural History, fossils of two teeth, first discovered in the Eastern European nation in the late 1970s, provide new evidence of a sizeable relative of the modern giant panda. However, unlike today’s iconic black and white bear, it did not rely entirely on bamboo for sustenance.
“Although not a direct ancestor of the modern species of giant panda, it is its closest relative,” explains the museum’s Professor Nikolai Spasov, whose findings were published today (August 1, 2022) in a peer-reviewed journal. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.
“This discovery shows how little we still know about ancient nature and demonstrates that paleontological discoveries can still lead to unexpected results today.”
The teeth, the upper canine tooth and the upper canine, were first cataloged by paleontologist Ivan Nikolov. He added them to the museum’s collection of fossil treasures after they were discovered decades ago in northwestern Bulgaria. This new species has been named Agriarctos nicolovii In his memory.
“They had only one label, vaguely written by hand,” recalls Professor Spasov. “It took me years to figure out what the locale was and how old it was. Then it took me a long time to realize that this was an unknown fossil giant panda.
The coal deposits in which the teeth were found – infused with black paint – suggest that this ancient panda lived in forests and swamps.
There, in the Miocene era, it probably ate a mostly vegetarian diet – but not entirely dependent on bamboo!
Fossils of the main grass that supported the modern panda are rare in the European fossil record, especially in the late Miocene of Bulgaria. Additionally, the nests of teeth do not seem strong enough to crush logs.
Instead, it likely feeds on soft plant material—consistent with a general trend toward greater reliance on plants throughout the evolutionary history of this group.
Sharing their environment with other large carnivores may have led the giant panda lineage toward vegetarianism.
“Competition with other species, especially carnivores and other bears, explains the close dietary specialization of giant pandas with vegetable foods in wet forests,” says Professor Spasov.
A. NikolovyHowever, the teeth provided sufficient protection against predators, the paper speculates. Additionally, the fangs are comparable in size to the modern panda, suggesting they belong to a similar or slightly smaller animal.
The authors propose that A. Nikolovy Extinct as a result of climate change, perhaps due to the ‘Messinian salinity crisis’. This event, which dried up the Mediterranean basin, significantly changed the surrounding landscape environment.
“Giant pandas are a very special group of bears,” adds Professor Spasov. “Even so A. Niklovi Not as specialized in habitat and diet as modern giant pandas, fossil pandas were sufficiently specialized and their evolution was associated with humid, woody habitats. Climate change at the end of the Miocene in southern Europe, leading to drought, had a negative effect on the survival of the last European panda.
Co-author Gigao Jiangsuo, from Peking University in China, was primarily responsible for helping to narrow down the identification of this strange animal as belonging to the Ailuropodini – tribe in the bear family Urcidae. Although this group of animals is best known for its only living representative, the giant panda, they once ranged across Europe and Asia. Interestingly, the authors propose two possible pathways for the distribution of this group.
A possible evolutionary path leads the Ailuropodini to end out of Asia. A. Nikolovy In Europe. However, Professor Spasov adds a caveat to this hypothesis, noting that “the oldest members of this group of bears were found in Europe,” according to paleontological data. This group may have originated in Europe and then moved to Asia, where the ancestors of another species, Ailurarchtos, was created. These early pandas may have evolved later Ailuropoda– The modern giant panda.
Reference: “Discovery of a late Trullian giant panda in Bulgaria and the early evolution and spread of the panda lineage” 1 Aug 2022, Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.
Funding: Second Tibetan Plateau Scientific Expedition and Research, Natural Science Foundation of China Program, Strategic Priority Research Program of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Key Frontier Science Research Program of Chinese Academy of Sciences