MADRID, 31 (SERVIMEDIA)
An international team of researchers has discovered a new species of panda which they say is the last known and “most evolved” European panda, and which lived in the forested wetlands of Bulgaria around six million years ago.
The study, published this Monday in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, is based on the analysis of two tooth fossils originally found in Bulgaria in the late 1970s and deposited in the National Museum of Natural History. from this country.
The research offers new evidence for a relative of the modern panda. However, unlike today’s iconic black and white bear, he didn’t rely solely on bamboo.
“Although it is not a direct ancestor of the modern panda genus, it is its close relative,” explains Nikolai Spassov from the Bulgarian National Museum of Natural History, before adding: “This discovery shows how much we little is still known about ancient nature and it also shows that historical discoveries in paleontology can lead to unexpected results even today.”
The upper carnassial tooth and an upper canine were originally cataloged by paleontologist Ivan Nikolov, who added them to the museum when they were discovered in northwestern Bulgaria. In his honour, the new species is named ‘Agriarctos nikolovi’.
“They just had a vaguely handwritten label,” Spassov recalled, adding, “It took me many years to figure out what the locality was and how old it was. Then it also took me a long time to realize that it was an unknown fossil panda.”
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 sustains the modern panda are rare in the European and especially late Bulgarian Miocene fossil record, and the tooth cusps 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.
The study indicates that, however, the teeth of ‘A. nikolovi’ provided extensive 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 propose that ‘A. nikolovi’ may have disappeared as a result of climate change, possibly due to the Messinian salt crisis, an episode in which the Mediterranean basin dried up around 6 to 5.3 million years ago, significantly altering the surrounding terrestrial environments.
“Giant pandas are a very specialized group of bears,” adds Spassov, pointing out, “Even though ‘A. niklovi’ was not as specialized for habitats and food as the modern panda, the fossil pandas were sufficiently specialized and their evolution was linked to humid and forest habitats.It is likely that climate change at the end of the Miocene in southern Europe, which led to aridification, had an adverse effect on the existence of the last european panda.”
Qigao Jiangzuo, of Peking University, China, was primarily responsible for helping narrow down the identity of this strange beast to belonging to the Ailuropodini, which belong to the bear family Ursidae.
This group of animals is known for its only living representative, the giant panda, once they spread across Europe and Asia. Interestingly, the authors propose two potential routes for the distribution of this group. A possible evolutionary trajectory has Ailuropodini leaving Asia and ending with ‘A. nikolovi’ in Europe.
However, Professor Spassov adds caution to this hypothesis by pointing out that paleontological data show that “the oldest members of this group of bears have been found in Europe”.
This suggests that the group may have expanded in Europe and then moved on to Asia, where ancestors of another genus, Ailurarctos, developed. These early pandas may have later evolved into the Ailuropoda, to which the modern panda belongs.