The extinct panda from ancient Europe highlights the debate about the origin of animals

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 of the new panda species — named Agriarctos nikolovi — is two fossilized teeth found in a piece of coal in Bulgaria nearly 50 years ago, according to a study published Sunday in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. But scientists say it shows everything was living in Europe around 6 million years ago and reinforces previous discoveries.

A 2017 report by China Daily — a news outlet run by the Chinese Communist Party — noted that the debate over the geographic origin of pandas dates back to the 1940s, when their fossils were found in Hungary. But giant pandas are now a famous national symbol in China, and the idea that their ancestors came from Europe is unwelcome there. China Daily said the idea is “still premature” and quoted an expert from the Chinese Academy of Sciences to explain that the pandas may have lived across Asia and Europe at different stages of their evolution.

The younger European panda lived too recently to resolve this debate, and was not a direct ancestor of the giant panda, but the discovery of yet another panda species in Europe reinforces the idea that they came from there.

“Paleontological data show that the earliest members of this group of bears were found in Europe and the European fossil [species] they are more numerous,” said the study’s lead author, paleontologist Nikolai Spasov of the Bulgarian National Museum of Natural History in Sofia. “This suggests that the group may have developed in Europe and then headed to Asia, where it later evolved into Ailuropoda – the modern giant panda.”

Spasov found the fossilized teeth in an old museum collection, where they had been stored 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-bearing sediments. But the teeth then remained undisturbed for nearly 50 years until Spasov and his team began investigating 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 recognized in fossils mainly by the distinct shapes of their teeth.

The new study shows that the youngest European panda was slightly smaller than the giant panda.

“Judging by the teeth found, we can imagine that the new species from Bulgaria was slightly smaller than today’s panda,” Spasov said in an email. “But its fangs were proportionately larger, probably due to strong competition with other carnivores.”

The analysis showed, however, that the extinct panda ate mostly plants, though not nearly exclusively bamboo like giant pandas today. Spasov said he suspects that a common ancestor of the panda lineage had already 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 mostly black-and-white fur, based on the coloration of both modern brown bears and modern pandas—research shows that white fur can help pandas camouflage in the snow , while the black fur mixes with shadows and the whole design disrupts their visibility.

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

Europa 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 drying known in the Mediterranean as the ‘Messinian salinity crisis’ at the end of the Miocene [epoch]about 5.6 million years ago, it 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 study, but was part of the team that analyzed fossilized teeth and jaws from a 10-million-year-old panda found in Hungary. in 2013.

He said scientists still can’t determine whether everything came from Asia or Europe.

“We have a nice fossil record in Europe that starts at least 11.6 million years ago, but we don’t have a complete fossil record in Asia from the same time 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 reproduction 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 that stretches between Western Europe and China could survive so long with the reproductive biology of living pandas,” he said.

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