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A pair of fossil teeth in a museum collection recently revealed when pandas last roamed Europe.
When the researchers examined the teeth, which had been stored for around 40 years, they discovered that the fossils belonged to a never-before-seen species of the ancient European panda. The newly discovered species, which is a close relative of modern giant pandas, roamed the continent about 6 million years ago and was likely the last panda in Europe.
The teeth – an upper canine and an upper molar – were originally unearthed at a site in northwestern Bulgaria in the late 1970s, but they eventually ended up in the Bulgarian National Museum of Natural History in Sofia. The teeth were never properly cataloged and thus remained untouched for decades. But when museum staff recently stumbled across the unusual teeth, they decided to investigate further.
After analyzing the teeth, the researchers determined they belonged to an ancient European panda, but the fossils were unlike any other panda species teeth previously identified in Europe. Most species of European pandas had smaller teeth than modern ones giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), meaning they were probably much smaller than their present-day cousins. But the new species that has been named Agriartos Nikolovi, had much larger teeth than usual for European pandas, so it was most likely similar in size to modern-day giant pandas. The teeth are also much younger than other European panda fossils, some of which are more than 10 million years old, suggesting this A. nikolovi was probably the last panda species to live on the continent.
“This discovery shows how little we still know about the nature of antiquity,” says study co-author Nikolai Spassov, paleontologist at the Bulgarian National Museum of Natural History. said in a statement (opens in new tab). The fact that the newly described species comes from a specimen found in the 1970s “also shows that historical discoveries in paleontology can still yield unexpected results today,” Spassov said.
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Despite the size similarities between A. nikolovi and live giant pandas, the newly described species “is not a direct ancestor of the modern genus,” Spassov said. But “it’s a close relative.” However, the new species likely lived in a very different habitat than modern-day pandas, he added.
The fossilized teeth were originally found in coal deposits, which the otter flycatchers had partially colored black. The composition of the coal at the site suggests that the area was once a swampy forest. It means that A. nikolovi They may have had a much more varied diet than modern pandas, feeding on a range of soft plants rather than just one type of plant, such as tiger. B. the preferred food of modern pandas: bamboo.
Interestingly, giant pandas’ digestive systems appear to be able to process meat like other bears do, but they are still strictly vegetarian. Previous research has found that giant pandas switched to bamboo because they were being outcompeted by other bears, the statement said. The researchers think A. nikolovi It may also have faced similar evolutionary pressures to become vegetarian, as its teeth are much weaker than modern pandas’, meaning they probably couldn’t even eat bamboo, let alone something as hard as animal bones.
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The authors of the study agree A. nikolovi were eventually wiped out because of climate change affecting their habitat and diet.
“It is likely that climate change will begin at the end of the Miocene [23 million to 5.3 million years ago] in southern Europe had a negative impact on the existence of the last European panda,” Spassov said. The researchers suggested that A. nikolovi may have been particularly vulnerable to an event that unfolded around 6 million years ago: the “Messinian Salt Crisis,” when the Mediterranean Sea almost dried up, severely impacting terrestrial ecosystems. The ancient panda’s swampy forests likely became much drier and warmer, making it harder for plants to grow and likely starving the pandas, the statement said.
The team remains unsure of exactly how A. nikolovi and other extinct European pandas are related to giant pandas and ancient Asian pandas. It is currently unclear whether pandas originally came from Asia and migrated to Europe or vice versa. However, the researchers suspect a European origin for pandas is more likely, since fossil evidence shows that “the oldest members of this bear group were found in Europe,” Spassov said. Past pandas are unlikely to solve this mystery, the scientists reported.
The study was published online on July 31 in Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology (opens in new tab).
Originally published on Live Science.