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A pair of fossil teeth in the museum’s collection was recently discovered when pandas last roamed Europe.
When researchers examined the teeth, which had been in storage for nearly 40 years, they discovered that the remains belonged to a never-before-seen species of ancient European panda. The newly discovered species, a close relative of modern giant pandas, roamed the continent about 6 million years ago and was probably the last panda in Europe.
The teeth – an upper canine and an upper molar – were originally removed from a site in northwestern Bulgaria in the late 1970s, but they were stored at the Bulgarian National Museum of Natural History in Sofia. The teeth were never properly cataloged and as a result remained untouched for decades. But when museum staff recently came across some unusual teeth, they decided to investigate further.
After analyzing the teeth, the researchers realized they belonged to an ancient European panda, but the remains did not resemble other teeth of panda species previously identified in Europe. Most species of European pandas had smaller teeth than modern ones giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), meaning they were probably much smaller than their modern relatives. But a new species has been named Agriarctos nikolovi, had much larger teeth than is typical for European pandas, so it was probably similar in size to today’s giant pandas. The teeth are also much more recent than other European panda fossils, some dating back more than 10 million years. A. Nikolovi It was probably the last panda species to live on the continent.
“This discovery shows how little we still know about ancient nature,” said paleontologist Nikolay Spassov of the Bulgarian National Museum of Natural History, co-author of the study. said in the statement (opens in new tab). The fact that the newly described species comes from a specimen found in the 1970s also “demonstrates that historical discoveries in paleontology can still have unexpected consequences today,” Spassov said.
Related: The oldest DNA of giant pandas has been found in a cave in China
Despite the size similarity between them 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, he added, the new species likely lived in a very different habitat than present-day pandas.
Fossilized teeth were originally found in coal beds that partially blackened the bears’ chompers. The composition of coal in the area suggests that this area was once a swamp forest. This means that A. Nikolovi Perhaps modern pandas had a more varied diet than modern pandas, feasting on a range of soft vegetation rather than just one type of plant, such as bamboo, which is their food of choice.
Interestingly, the digestive system of giant pandas is capable of processing meat like other bears, yet they adhere to a strict vegetarian diet. According to the statement, previous studies suggested that giant pandas switched to a bamboo diet because they outcompeted other bears. Researchers think A. Nikolovi may have faced similar evolutionary pressures to adopt a vegetarian diet, as their teeth were much weaker than those of modern pandas, meaning they couldn’t even cut through bamboo, let alone something as hard as animal bones.
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The authors of the study also doubt it A. Nikolovi They may have eventually become extinct as climate change affects their habitat and feeding environment.
“The climate probably changed at the end of the Miocene period [23 million to 5.3 million years ago] It had a negative impact on the existence of the last European panda in the south of Europe,” said Spassov. The researchers suggested that A. Nikolovi It may have been particularly vulnerable to an event that occurred about 6 million years ago: the “Messinian salinity crisis,” when the Mediterranean Sea dried up almost completely, severely affecting terrestrial ecosystems. According to the statement, the swamp forests of ancient pandas became drier and warmer, making it difficult for plants to grow and causing pandas to starve.
The team remains unclear on exactly how A. Nikolovi and other extinct European pandas are related to giant pandas and ancient Asian pandas. It is not yet clear whether pandas first appeared in Asia and migrated to Europe or vice versa. However, the researchers suspect that pandas are more likely to be of European origin, as fossil evidence suggests that “the oldest members of this bear group are found in Europe.” Pandas probably won’t solve the mystery, scientists say.
The study was published online on July 31 Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology (opens in new tab).
Originally published on Live Science.
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