Europe’s last giant panda may have inhabited the forested wetlands of Bulgaria around six million years ago. Researchers found this new species from two fossil teeth that had been dormant in the Bulgarian Museum of Natural History since their discovery in the late 1970s. The animal was similar in size to today’s iconic black-and-white bear today, but it didn’t just depend on bamboo.
“Although it is not a direct ancestor of the modern giant panda genus, it is its close relative,” says researcher Nikolai Spassov, whose findings are published Monday in ‘Journal of Vertebrate Palaeontology’.
An upper butcher’s tooth (used to cut meat and bone like scissors) and an upper canine were originally cataloged by paleontologist Ivan Nikolov, who added them to the museum’s fossil hoard when they were unearthed in the north -western Bulgaria. This new species is called Agriarctos nikolovi in his honour.
“They just had a vaguely handwritten label,” Professor Spassov recalled of the fossil. “It took me many years to find out how old it was. Then it also took me a long time to realize that it was an unknown fossil giant panda,” he admits.
The charcoal deposits in which the teeth were found, which imbued them with a blackened tint, suggest that this ancient panda inhabited forested and swampy regions. There, in the Miocene era, he probably had a predominantly vegetarian diet, but did not rely solely on bamboo. Fossils of the basic grass that supports the modern panda are rare in the European and especially late Bulgarian Miocene fossil record, and the tips of the teeth do not appear strong enough to crush the woody stems.
Instead, it likely fed on softer plant material, consistent with the general trend of greater reliance on plants in the evolutionary history of this group. Sharing their environment with other large predators likely pushed the giant panda line toward vegetarianism.
“Likely competition with other species, particularly carnivores and presumably other bears, explains the closer food specialization of giant pandas for planting food in rainforest conditions,” Spassov says.
However, the teeth A.nikol they provided sufficient defense against predators. Additionally, the canines are comparable in size to those of the modern panda, suggesting that they belonged to a similarly sized or slightly smaller animal.
The authors suggest that A.nikol it may have disappeared as a result of climate change, possibly due to the “Messinian salinity crisis”, an event in which the Mediterranean basin dried up, significantly altering the surrounding terrestrial environments.
“Giant pandas are a very specialized group of bears,” adds Spassov. “It is likely that late Miocene climate change in southern Europe, which led to aridification, had a detrimental effect on the existence of the last European panda,” he said.
Although this group of animals is best known for its only living representative, the giant panda, it once spread across Europe and Asia. The group may have developed in Europe and then moved on to Asia, where the ancestors of another genus developed, Ailurarctos . These early pandas may have evolved later in Ailuropods the modern giant panda.