A newly discovered panda species is likely to be the last of its kind that lived in Europe, according to a new study published by the Taylor & Francis Group. The discovery was made by experts during the analysis of two teeth fossils that were found in eastern Europe in the late 1970s and stored at the Bulgarian National Museum of Natural History.
The experts say that the species, which lived in the forested wetlands of Bulgaria around six million years ago, represents the “most evolved” European giant panda.
“Although not a direct ancestor of the modern genus of the giant panda, it is its close relative,” explained Professor Nikolai Spassov. “This discovery shows how little we still know about ancient nature and demonstrates also that historic discoveries in paleontology can lead to unexpected results, even today.”
The fossils include an upper carnassial tooth and an upper canine. The species has been named Agriarctos nikolovi after paleontologist Ivan Nikolov, who first catalogued the fossils at the museum over 40 years ago.
“They had only one label written vaguely by hand,” said Professor Spassov. “It took me many years to figure out what the locality was and what its age was. Then it also took me a long time to realize that this was an unknown fossil giant panda.”
The fossilized teeth were found in coal deposits which suggest that the panda lived in forested, swampy regions. The species had a mainly vegetarian diet, but was not completely dependent on bamboo. The researchers believe that the pandas were driven toward a plant diet due to pressure from large predators that shared their environment.
“The likely competition with other species, especially carnivores and presumably other bears, explains the closer food specialization of giant pandas to vegetable food in humid forest conditions,” said Professor Spassov.
The experts propose that A. nikolovi became extinct as a result of climate change, and was possibly a casualty of the Messinian salinity crisis – an event during which the Mediterranean basin dried up.
“Giant pandas are a very specialized group of bears,” explained Professor Spassov. “Even if A. niklovi was not as specialized in habitats and food as the modern giant panda, fossil pandas were specialized enough and their evolution was related to humid, wooded habitats. It is likely that climate change at the end of the Miocene in southern Europe, leading to aridification, had an adverse effect on the existence of the last European panda.”
Image credit: Velizar Simeonovski, Chicago