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A pair of fossil teeth were recently revealed in a museum collection when pandas last roamed Europe.
When the researchers examined the teeth, which had been stored for 40 years, they discovered that the fossils belonged to a never-before-seen species of ancient European pandas. The newly discovered species, a close relative of the modern giant panda, roamed the continent about 6 million years ago and is likely the last pandas in Europe.
The teeth – an upper dog and a molar – were originally discovered during the late 1970s from a site in northwest Bulgaria, but they ended up in storage at the Bulgarian National Museum of Natural History in Sofia. The teeth were not properly indexed, and as a result they were left untouched for decades. But when museum staff recently found unusual teeth, they decided to investigate further.
After analyzing the teeth, the researchers realized they belonged to an ancient European panda, but the fossils were different from any other teeth of panda species previously identified in Europe. Most European panda species have teeth that are smaller than modern teeth giant panda (giant panda melanoleuca), which means that they were probably much smaller than their modern-day cousins. But the new species that has been named Agariartos NikolovyIt had much larger teeth than a European panda, so it was likely similar in size to today’s giant panda. The teeth are also dated very close to other European panda fossils, some of which date back more than 10 million years, indicating that a. Nikolovy It was probably the last of the pandas to live on the continent.
“This discovery shows how little we know about ancient nature,” said study co-author Nikolai Spasov, a paleontologist at the Bulgarian National Museum of Natural History, He said in a statement (Opens in a new tab). The fact that the newly described species came from a specimen found in the 1970s “also shows that historical discoveries in paleontology can lead to unexpected results, even today,” Spasov said.
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Despite the magnitude of the similarity between a. Nikolovy The newly described species and the living giant panda “are not a direct ancestor of the modern genus,” Spasov said. But it is “close”. However, it is possible that the new species lived in a habitat completely different from the current pandas.
The fossilized teeth were originally found in coal deposits, which partially dyed the bear trains black. The coal formation at the site indicates that the area was once a swampy forest. This means that a. Nikolovy Its diet may have been more varied than that of modern pandas, feeding on a range of soft plants rather than exclusively eating one type of plant, such as modern pandas’ favorite food: bamboo.
The digestive system of the giant panda seems to be able to process meat, like other bears, but it still adheres to a strict vegetarian diet. Previous research suggested that giant pandas switched to a bamboo diet because other bears outgrew them, according to the statement. Researchers believe a. Nikolovy It may also have faced similar evolutionary pressures to adopt a plant-based diet, as its teeth are much weaker than those of modern pandas, which means they probably can’t even gnaw on bamboo, let alone something as hard as animal bones.
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The study authors also doubt that a. Nikolovy They may have eventually been wiped out as climate change affected their habitat and diet.
Climate change likely at the end of the Miocene epoch [23 million to 5.3 million years ago] In southern Europe it had a negative impact on the existence of the last European pandas. The researchers suggested that a. Nikolovy It may have been particularly vulnerable to an event that occurred about 6 million years ago: the “Messenian Salinity Crisis”, when the Mediterranean Sea dried up almost completely, with serious repercussions for terrestrial ecosystems. According to the statement, the swamp forests of ancient pandas will likely become drier and warmer, making it difficult for plants to grow and potentially starving the pandas.
The team is still not sure exactly how this happened a. Nikolovy Other European panda genetics are related to giant pandas and ancient Asian pandas. It is currently unclear whether pandas first originated in Asia and migrated to Europe, or vice versa. However, researchers suspect that the pandas’ European origin is more likely because fossil evidence shows that “the oldest members of this group of bears were found in Europe,” Spasov said. But since the new fossils belong to the smallest fossils in Europe that scientists report to have gone pandas, they likely won’t shed light on this particular mystery.
The study was published online July 31 in Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology (Opens in a new tab).
Originally published on Live Science.