The discovery of an extinct panda that roamed Europe’s forests and swamps millions of years ago could rekindle the debate over whether the ancestors of China’s iconic national animal really came from Europe.
The only evidence of the newly identified panda species — called Agriarctos nikolovi — are 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 scientists say they show that pandas lived in Europe about 6 million years ago, confirming previous discoveries.
A 2017 report from China Daily — a Chinese Communist Party news outlet — noted that the debate over the geographic origins of pandas 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 welcome there. China Daily said the idea is “still premature” and quoted an expert from the Chinese Academy of Sciences as explaining that pandas have lived in Asia and Europe at various stages of their evolution.
The newest European panda lived too recently to settle that debate, and it wasn’t a direct ancestor of the giant panda, but the discovery of yet another panda species in Europe bolsters 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 of the Bulgarian National Museum of Natural History in Sofia. “This suggests that the group may have evolved in Europe and then moved to Asia, where they later evolved into Ailuropoda — the modern giant panda.”
Spassov found the fossilized teeth in an old collection at the museum, where they had been stored 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 coal-bearing sediments. But the teeth then lay untouched for nearly 50 years until Spassov and his team began examining them.
Pandas are a type of bear, but genetic analysis shows that their lineage diverged from other bears about 19 million years ago. They are mainly recognized in fossils by the different shapes of their teeth.
The new study suggests that the newest European panda was slightly smaller than the giant panda.
“Judging from the teeth found, we can imagine that the new species from Bulgaria was only slightly smaller than the current panda,” Spassov said in an email. “But its canines were proportionally larger, probably because of strong competition with other carnivores.”
However, the analysis showed that the extinct panda ate mostly plants, although today not almost exclusively bamboo like giant pandas. Spassov said he suspects a common ancestor in the panda lineage had already adopted a mostly vegetarian diet, possibly because of competition from other predators for animal prey.
He and his colleagues also suspect that the extinct panda may have had primarily black and white fur, based on the coloration of both modern brown bears and modern pandas — research suggests white fur may help camouflage pandas in snow, while black fur blends in with shadows and the whole pattern interferes with their visibility.
But Agriarctos nikolovi was probably the last panda to live in Europe. The study suggests the species lived primarily in swampy forests, as did the discovery of the fossilized teeth in a coal deposit.
Europe was relatively wet when 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 drought in the Mediterranean known as the ‘Messinian salt crisis’ at the end of the 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, was not involved in the latest research, 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 can’t yet determine whether pandas originated in Asia or in 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, but they remain undiscovered.”
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 of their environment that previous pandas did not share.
“I can’t imagine that such a widespread and successful lineage, spreading between Western Europe and China, could have survived for so long with the reproductive biology of living pandas,” he said.