Extinct panda from ancient Europe highlights debate over animal’s origins

The discovery of an extinct panda that roamed 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 panda species — named 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. But researchers say they show pandas lived in Europe around 6 million years ago and reinforce previous discoveries.

A 2017 report by China Daily — a news outlet run by the Chinese Communist Party — noted the debate over the geographic origin of pandas goes back to the 1940s, when their fossils were found in Hungary. But giant pandas are now a famous national symbol in China, and the idea that their ancestors came from Europe is unwelcome there. China Daily said the idea is “still premature” and quoted an expert from the Chinese Academy of Sciences as explaining that pandas may have lived throughout Asia and Europe at different stages of their development.

The newest European panda lived to settle that debate recently, and it wasn’t a direct ancestor of the giant panda, but the discovery of yet 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,” said the study’s lead author, paleontologist Nikolai Spassov of Bulgaria’s National Museum of Natural History in Sofia. “This suggests that the group may have evolved in Europe and then went to Asia, where they later evolved into the Ailuropoda – the modern giant panda.”

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

Pandas are a type of bear, but genetic analysis shows that their lineage diverged from other bears around 19 million years ago. They are recognized in fossils mainly from the distinct shapes of their teeth.

The new study suggests that the most recent 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 the canines were proportionally larger, probably due to strong competition with other predators.”

However, the analysis showed that the extinct panda mostly ate plants, but not almost exclusively bamboo like giant pandas today. Spassov said he suspects that a common ancestor in the panda genus had already adopted a mainly vegetarian diet, possibly due to competition from other carnivores for prey.

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

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

Europa was relatively wet at the time it lived, about 6 million years ago, but became much drier about half a million years later as the climate changed, Spassov said: “The severe aridification known in the Mediterranean as the ‘Messinian salinity crisis’ at the end of the Miocene [epoch]approximately 5.6 million years ago, was certainly not favorable to the survival of this forest species.”

Paleontologist David Begun, a professor of anthropology at the University of Toronto, was not 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 2013.

He said scientists cannot yet determine whether the pandas originated in Asia or Europe.

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

Begun suspects that the notoriously difficult breeding process of modern giant pandas, which has played a role in their decline, may be an evolutionary adaptation to the limited resources in their environment that earlier pandas did not share.

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

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