Extinct panda from ancient Europe sheds light on animal origins debate

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 for the newly identified species of panda – nicknamed Agriarctos nikolovi – are two fossilized teeth found in a lump of coal in Bulgaria nearly 50 years ago, according to a study published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology on Sunday. But scientists say they show pandas lived in Europe around 6 million years ago and bolster earlier findings.

A 2017 report by China Daily – a media outlet run by the Chinese Communist Party – noted that debate over the geographic origin of pandas dates back to the 1940s, when their fossils were discovered in Hungary. But giant pandas are now a famous national symbol in China, and the idea that their ancestors came from Europe is not welcome there. The China Daily said the notion is “still premature” and quoted an expert from the Chinese Academy of Sciences to explain that pandas could have lived throughout Asia and Europe at different stages of their evolution.

The newest European panda lived too recently to resolve this debate, and it was not a direct ancestor of the giant panda, but the discovery of another species of panda in Europe reinforces the idea that they originated there. -down.

“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 Bulgaria’s National Museum of Natural History in Sofia. “This suggests that the group may have expanded in Europe and then moved on to Asia, where it later evolved into Ailuropoda – the modern giant panda.”

Spassov found the fossilized teeth in an old museum collection, where they had been kept by a former curator, geologist Ivan Nikolov. A barely legible note stored with them said they had been found in the 1970s in northwestern Bulgaria, near a mountain village known for its coal sediments. But the teeth then remained untouched for almost 50 years until Spassov and his team began looking for 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 primarily from the distinct shapes of their teeth.

The new study suggests that the newest European panda was a bit smaller than the giant panda.

“Judging from 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 its canines were proportionally larger, probably due to strong competition with other carnivores.”

Analysis showed, however, that the extinct panda ate mostly plants, though not almost exclusively bamboo like giant pandas do today. Spassov said he suspects a common ancestor in the panda line once adopted a mostly vegetarian diet, possibly due to competition from other predators for animal prey.

He and his colleagues also suspect that the extinct panda may have had predominantly black and white fur, based on the coloring of modern brown bears and modern pandas – research suggests white fur may help pandas camouflage themselves in the dark. snow, while the black fur blends into the shadows and the whole pattern disrupts their visibility.

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

Europe was relatively humid when it lived around 6 million years ago, but became much drier around half a million years later as the climate changed, Spassov said. : the end of the Miocene [epoch]about 5.6 million years ago, was certainly not favorable to the survival of this forest species.

Paleontologist David Begun, 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-year-old panda. million years old discovered in Hungary. in 2013.

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

“We have a nice fossil record in Europe dating back at least 11.6 million years, but we don’t have a complete fossil record in Asia for the same period,” he said in an email. mail. “So it’s impossible to say whether they were there too, but remain unknown.”

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

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

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