Closer examination of two fossilised teeth lurking in the collection of the Bulgarian National Museum of Natural History has revealed they belonged to a species of giant panda that lived in Europe around six million years ago.
The two teeth – an upper carnassial and an upper canine – were discovered in a coalfield in northwestern Bulgaria in the 1970s. They were unearthed by a palaeontologist called Ivan Nikolov, who put a handwritten label on them and added them to the museum’s collection of fossils. And that, for nearly 50 years, was that.
Recently, however, a team of palaeontologists led by the museum’s own Professor Nikolai Spassov have re-examined the fossils, and come to the conclusion that they must have belonged to a giant panda species that lived in the region around six million years ago, during the late Miocene Epoch. The team published their findings this week, in the peer-reviewed Journal of Vertebrate Palaeontology.
While it was previously known that pandas could once be found in Europe – debate rages as to whether they spread to Europe from Asia, or vice versa – the new species lived far more recently than other known species, leading the team to conjecture that this may well have been the last panda species ever to grace the continent
Unsurprisingly, the amount of information that can be gleaned from a mere couple of teeth is fairly limited – indeed, as Prof Spassov explains, even working out that they came from a panda took a while.
“They had only one label written vaguely by hand,” he said.
“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 realise that this was an unknown fossil giant panda.”
What Spassov and co-author Qigao Jiangzuo from Peking University can say with reasonable certainty is that the panda would have lived in swampy, forested regions – because that’s what coalfields once looked like – and that it existed on a largely vegetarian diet.
But unlike the modern giant panda, that diet would not have consisted of bamboo. Not only do the teeth not appear strong enough to bite through woody bamboo stems, but there is very little evidence of bamboo in the region’s fossil record from that era.
It is believed that the ancient species may have fallen victim to climate change. Around 5.33 million years ago, at the end of the Miocene, the Mediterranean basin began to dry up, which would have had a devastating effect on the creatures’ swampy habitat.
The new species is not believed to be a direct ancestor of the modern giant panda, but would have been of similar or only slightly smaller size. It has been named Agriarctos nikolovi, in honour of the man who first discovered the fossils.
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Russell Deeks is a freelance writer with nearly 30 years’ journalism experience, working across the fields of music, technology and science – which, he says, cross over more often than you might think. Despite the drawback of holding a degree in English & American Literature, he has been a regular contributor to BBC Science Focus since 2006.