Giant pandas roamed Europe six million years ago

A closer examination of two fossilized teeth lurking in the collection of the Bulgarian National Museum of Natural History has revealed that they belonged to a species of giant panda that lived in Europe around six million years ago.

The two teeth – an upper carnassial and an upper canine – were discovered in the 1970s in a coalfield in northwestern Bulgaria. They were unearthed by a paleontologist named Ivan Nikolov, who hand-labeled them and added them to the museum’s fossil collection. And that was it for almost 50 years.

Recently, however, a team of paleontologists led by museum professor Nikolai Spassov reexamined the fossils and concluded that they must have belonged to a species of giant panda that lived in the region about six million years ago in the late Miocene. The team published their findings in peer-reviewed this week Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

While it was previously known that pandas were once found in Europe – whether they spread from Asia to Europe or vice versa is debated – the new species lived much younger than other known species, leading the team to suspect that this might be the last species of panda to ever grace the continent

Unsurprisingly, the amount of information that can be gleaned from just a few teeth is fairly limited — in fact, as Prof Spassov explains, it took a while to figure out they came from a panda.

“They just had a vaguely handwritten label,” he said.

“It took me many years to find out what the place was and how old it was. Then it took me a long time to realize that it was an unknown giant panda fossil.”

What Spassov and co-author Qigao Jiangzuo of Peking University can say with some certainty is that the panda would have lived in swampy, forested regions – because that’s what coalfields once looked like – and that it was largely vegetarian.

But unlike the modern giant panda, this diet would not have consisted of bamboo. Not only do the teeth not seem strong enough to bite through woody bamboo stems, there is very little evidence of bamboo in the region’s fossil record from this period.

It is believed that the ancient species may have fallen victim to climate change. Around 5.33 million years ago, at the end of the Miocene, the Mediterranean basin began to dry up, which would have had devastating effects on the living beings’ swampy habitat.

The new species is not thought to be a direct ancestor of the modern giant panda, but would have been of a similar or only slightly smaller size. It has been named Agriartos Nikoloviin honor of the man who first discovered the fossils.

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