Extinct panda from ancient Europe sparks controversy over animal ancestry

The question of whether the forebears of China’s famous national animal actually originated from Europe may once again be raised in light of the finding of an extinct panda that roamed the forests and wetlands of Europe millions of years ago.

According to a study published Sunday in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, the newly discovered panda species known as Agriarctos nikolovi is only known from two fossilized teeth discovered in a piece of coal in Bulgaria approximately 50 years ago. But researchers claim that their findings support past findings and demonstrate that pandas were present in Europe around 6 million years ago.

When panda fossils were discovered in Hungary in the 1940s, there was a disagreement over where they originated, according to A 2017 report by China Daily, a news source controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. But in China, enormous pandas are now revered as a national emblem, and the notion that they originated in Europe is undesirable there. The idea is still speculative, according to China Daily, which cited a scientist from the Chinese Academy of Sciences to explain that pandas may have been in Asia and Europe at various times during their evolution.

The discovery of yet another panda species in Europe supports the notion that they originated there, even if the newest European panda was too recently extinct to settle that argument and it wasn’t the giant panda’s direct ancestor.

According to paleontologist Nikolai Spassov of Bulgaria’s National Museum of Natural History in Sofia, who is also the study’s lead author, the fossil evidence indicates that the oldest bears in this group were discovered in Europe, and that there are more fossil examples of this “species” in Europe. This implies that the population may have originated in Europe before migrating to Asia, where they underwent further evolution to become Ailuropoda, the contemporary giant panda.

The fossilized teeth were discovered by Spassov in an old collection at the museum, where they had been kept by the museum’s former curator, geologist Ivan Nikolov. They were discovered in the 1970s in northwest Bulgaria, close to a mountain town famed for its coal-bearing deposits, according to a barely visible note kept with them. However, the teeth remained undisturbed for almost 50 years before Spassov and his team began their investigation.

The genetic examination of pandas, a species of bear, reveals that their ancestry separated from that of other bears roughly 19 million years ago. The distinctive shapes of their teeth are mostly how fossils of them are identified.

According to the latest research, the gigantic panda and the newest European panda were both somewhat smaller.

According to the teeth discovered, the new species from Bulgaria was probably only marginally smaller than the panda of today, Spassov wrote in an email. But due to intense rivalry with other predators, its canine teeth were proportionately bigger.

However, the investigation revealed that, unlike modern giant pandas, the extinct panda largely consumed plants rather than bamboo. A common ancestor in the panda lineage may have already switched to a predominantly vegetarian diet because to competition with other predators for animal prey, according to Spassov.

Based on the coloration of both modern brown bears and modern pandas, he and his colleagues also believe that the extinct panda may have had mostly black and white fur. White fur may have helped pandas camouflage in snow, while black fur blends in to shadows and the entire pattern disrupts their visibility.

The last panda to reside in Europe, however, was possibly Agriarctos nikolovi. The discovery of the preserved teeth in a coal layer and the study both point to the species’ primary habitat as swampy woods.

Spassov said: The severe aridification at the end of the Miocene ‘epoch’, about 5.6 million years ago, known in the Mediterranean as the Messinian salinity crisis, was undoubtedly not favorable for the survival of this forest species. Europe was relatively wet at the time it lived, about 6 million years ago, but became much drier about half a million years later as the climate changed.

Professor of anthropology at the University of Toronto and paleontologist David Begun wasn’t involved in the most recent investigation, but he was a member of the group that examined the fossilized teeth and jaws from a 10-million-year-old panda found in Hungary in 2013.

According to him, experts are still unable to say whether pandas originated in Asia or Europe.

He explained in an email that while Asia has a complete fossil record from the same time period, Europe has a nice fossil record that dates back at least 11.6 million years. Therefore, it is impossible to establish if they were present but undetected as well.

Begun hypothesizes that the present giant pandas’ notoriously difficult breeding process, which has contributed to their demise, may be an evolutionary adaption to the environment’s scarce resources that earlier pandas didn’t share.

With the reproductive biology of contemporary pandas, I can’t conceive how such a broad and prosperous lineage dispersed between western Europe and China could have endured this long.