Scientists analyzing fossilized teeth unearthed in Bulgaria around 40 years ago have traced them to their original owner, which they believe to be Europe’s last giant panda. A close relative of the giant pandas found in China today, the species featured teeth of a similar size, albeit not quite as strong, indicating a diet not so reliant on bamboo.
The fossilized teeth at the center of this discovery were found in northwestern Bulgaria in the 1970s and stowed away at the country’s National Museum of History. Scientists have now retrieved the fossils and conducted new analysis, which revealed that they belonged to a creature from the Ailuropodini, a tribe of the Ursidae bear family of which the giant panda is the only surviving species.
“They had only one label written vaguely by hand,” said study author Professor Nikolai Spassov. “It took me many years to figure out what the locality was and what its age was. Then it also took me a long time to realize that this was an unknown fossil giant panda.”
The blackened pair of teeth, consisting of an upper canine and molar, were originally found in coal deposits and suggest the panda lived in forested, swampy areas. Unlike those of the modern giant panda, the teeth weren’t strong enough to crush the woody stems of bamboo, according to the scientists. This suggests the newly discovered species, dubbed Agriarctos nikolovi, survived on a diet that included softer plant materials instead.
Other scientists have found evidence of giant panda species in Europe, with one study tying a set of ancient teeth to a bear living in Hungary 10 million years ago. This raises the possibility that giant pandas originated in Europe before migrating to Asia and giving rise to new species such as Ailuropoda, the modern giant panda.
The fossils examined in this study, believed to be around six million years old, are evidence of the last known giant panda on the European continent. The authors believe shifts in the climate that resulted in the Mediterranean basin drying up at the end of the Miocene period most likely caused Agriarctos nikolovi to go extinct.
“Giant pandas are a very specialized group of bears,” said Spassov. “Even if A. niklovi was not as specialized in habitats and food as the modern giant panda, fossil pandas were specialized enough and their evolution was related to humid, wooded habitats. It is likely that climate change at the end of the Miocene in southern Europe, leading to aridification, had an adverse effect on the existence of the last European panda.”
The research was published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.