Extinct panda from ancient Europe sheds light on debate over animal’s origins

Extinct panda from ancient Europe sheds light on debate over animal’s origins

The discovery of an extinct panda roaming the forests and swamps of Europe millions of years ago could reignite the debate over whether the ancestors of China’s iconic national animal actually came from Europe.

The only evidence of the newly identified species of panda — dubbed Agriarctos nikolovi — is two fossilized teeth found in a lump of coal in Bulgaria nearly 50 years ago, according to a study published Sunday in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. However, scientists say they show pandas lived in Europe around 6 million years ago, confirming previous discoveries.

A 2017 report by China Daily — a news outlet run by the Chinese Communist Party — noted that debate over pandas’ geographic origins dates back to the 1940s, when their fossils were found in Hungary. But giant pandas are now a celebrated national symbol in China, and the idea that their ancestors came from Europe is not welcomed there. China Daily said the idea was “still premature,” citing an expert from the Chinese Academy of Sciences to explain that pandas may have lived across Asia and Europe at different stages of their evolution.

The newest European panda lived too young to resolve this debate and was not a direct ancestor of the giant panda, but the discovery of another panda species in Europe reinforces the idea that they originated there.

“The paleontological data show that the oldest members of this group of bears were found in Europe, and the European fossil [species] are more numerous,” said the study’s lead author, paleontologist Nikolai Spassov from the Bulgarian National Museum of Natural History in Sofia. “This suggests that the group may have evolved in Europe and then went to Asia, where it later evolved into Ailuropoda – the modern giant panda.”

Spassov found the fossilized teeth in an old collection at the museum, where they were kept by a former curator, geologist Ivan Nikolov. A barely legible note kept with them said they had been found in northwestern Bulgaria in the 1970s near a mountain village known for its carboniferous sediments. But the teeth then lay undisturbed for almost 50 years until Spassov and his team began researching them.

Pandas are a type of bear, but genetic analysis shows their ancestry differs from other bears around 19 million years ago. They can be recognized in fossils mainly by the different shapes of their teeth.

The new study suggests that the newest European panda was slightly smaller than the giant panda.

“Judging by the teeth found, we can imagine that the new species from Bulgaria was only slightly smaller than today’s panda,” Spassov said in an email. “But its canines were proportionally larger, probably due to strong competition from other carnivores.”

However, analysis showed that the extinct panda ate mostly plants, though not almost exclusively bamboo like modern-day giant pandas. Spassov said he suspects a common ancestor in the panda lineage may have already adopted a primarily vegetarian diet, possibly because of competition from other predators for animal prey.

He and his colleagues also suspect that the extinct panda had mostly black and white fur, based on the coloration of both modern brown bears and modern pandas – research suggests that white fur can help pandas to camouflage in snow, while black fur can blends into shadows and the entire pattern interferes with their visibility.

But Agriarctos nikolovi was probably the last panda to live in Europe. The study suggests that the species primarily lived in swampy forests, as does the discovery of the fossilized teeth in a coal deposit.

Europe was relatively wet in its day about 6 million years ago, but became much drier about half a million years later as the climate changed, Spassov said: “The severe dehydration known in the Mediterranean as the ‘Messinian Salt Crisis’ in late Miocene [epoch]about 5.6 million years ago, was certainly not favorable for the survival of this forest species.”

Paleontologist David Begun, a professor of anthropology at the University of Toronto, wasn’t involved in the latest study, but he was part of the team that analyzed the fossilized teeth and jaws of a 10-million-year-old panda found in Hungary in the year 2013

He said scientists have not yet been able to determine whether pandas are from Asia or from Europe.

“We have a nice fossil record in Europe that started at least 11.6 million years ago, but we don’t have a complete fossil record in Asia from the same period,” he said in an email. “So it’s impossible to say if they were there too but remain undetected.”

Begun theorizes that the notoriously difficult reproductive process of modern giant pandas, which has played a role in their demise, may be an evolutionary adaptation to the limited resources of their environment that previous pandas did not share.

“I can’t imagine that such a widespread and successful lineage between western Europe and China with the reproductive biology of live pandas could have survived for so long,” he said.

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