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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 preserved for around 40 years, they discovered that the fossils belonged to a never-before-seen species of ancient European panda. The new species, which is a close relative of modern giant pandas, roamed the continent around 6 million years ago and was probably the last of Europe’s pandas.
The teeth – an upper canine and an upper molar – were discovered in the late 1970s at a site in northwestern Bulgaria, but ended up in storage at the Bulgarian National Museum of Natural History in Sofia. The teeth were never properly cataloged and as a result they remained untouched for decades. But when museum staff recently came across the unusual teeth, they decided to investigate further.
After analyzing the teeth, the researchers realized they belonged to an ancient European panda, but the fossils were unlike any other previously identified panda species teeth in Europe. Most European panda species had smaller teeth than modern ones giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), meaning they were likely much smaller than their present-day cousins. But the new species, which has been named Agriarctos nikolovi, had much larger teeth than usual for European pandas, so it was most likely similar in size to today’s giant pandas. The teeth also date much more recently than other European panda fossils, some of which date back more than 10 million years, suggesting that A.nikolovi was probably the last panda species to live on the mainland.
“This discovery shows how little we know about ancient nature,” study co-author Nikolai Spassov, a paleontologist at the Bulgarian National Museum of Natural History, said in a press release (opens in a new tab). The fact that the newly described species came from a specimen found in the 1970s “also demonstrates that historical discoveries in paleontology can lead to unexpected results even today,” Spassov said.
Despite the similarities in size between A.nikolovi and living giant pandas, the newly described species “is not a direct ancestor of the modern genus,” Spassov said. But “he is a close relative”. However, the new species likely lived in a very different habitat than pandas do today, he added.
The fossilized teeth were originally found in coal deposits, which had partially stained bear bites black. The composition of the charcoal at the site suggests that the area was once a swamp forest. It means that A.nikolovi may have had a much more varied diet than modern pandas, feasting on a range of soft vegetation rather than exclusively one type of plant, such as modern pandas’ favorite food: bamboo.
Interestingly, giant pandas’ digestive systems seem to be able to process meat like other bears do, but they still stick to a strict vegetarian diet. Previous research has suggested that giant pandas switched to a bamboo-based diet because they were being outcompete by other bears, the statement said. Researchers think A.nikolovi may also have faced similar evolutionary pressures to adopt a vegetarian diet, as its teeth are much weaker than those of modern pandas, which means they probably couldn’t even chew bamboo, let alone anything special. as hard as animal bones.
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The study authors also suspect that A.nikolovi may have ultimately been wiped out because climate change affected their habitat and diet.
“It is likely that climate change at the end of the Miocene epoch [23 million to 5.3 million years ago] in southern Europe had a negative effect 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 took place around 6 million years ago: the “Messinian salinity crisis”, when the Mediterranean Sea almost completely dried up, which had serious repercussions on terrestrial ecosystems. The ancient panda swamp forests likely became much drier and hotter, making it harder for plants to grow and likely starving the pandas, the statement said.
The team remains uncertain as to exactly how A.nikolovi and other extinct European pandas are related to giant pandas and ancient Asian pandas. It is currently unclear whether pandas originated in Asia and migrated to Europe, or vice versa. However, researchers suspect a European origin for pandas is more likely because fossil evidence shows “the oldest members of this group of bears were found in Europe,” Spassov said. the extinct pandas, they likely won’t shed light on this particular mystery, the scientists reported.
The study was published online July 31 in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology (opens in a new tab).
Originally posted on Live Science.