A panda fossil in Europe reveals a bamboo-free diet

Pandas love bamboo, but they may not have developed a taste for this bitter, nutty plant until recently. Paleontologists discovered the fact while studying a newly described relative of giant pandas called Agriarktos Nikolovi, that hung out in Europe a few million years ago and had a smaller set of teeth than their modern family. The findings, published on July 31 in Journal of Vertebrate Paleontologysuggest that the panda species was probably the last to live in Europe.

Fossil teeth were first discovered in the late 1970s in northwestern Bulgaria in coal deposits that blackened chompers. Because the Bulgarian National History Museum did not clearly list the specimens in its fossil catalog, they remained untouched in storage until an accidental discovery by staff 40 years later.

“They only had one label, written vaguely by hand,” explained Nikolay Spasov, a paleontologist and museum professor at Sophia University in California, in a press release. “It took me many years to figure out what this deposit was and how old it was. Then it also took me a long time to realize that it was an unknown giant panda fossil.

The upper canine and upper molar of the tooth sample are traced to a species closely related to today’s giant pandas, which live only in southwestern China. Bears roamed the forested and marshy regions of Europe nearly 6 million years ago in the Miocene epoch. A. nikol had smaller teeth than today’s pandas, but larger than other panda species of the period. The authors of the study suggest that through evolution, the canines and molars of mammals probably grew to protect them from predators. Larger teeth also required a larger mouth, suggesting that these pandas were similar in size to or slightly smaller than today’s pandas.

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Although this is not the first prehistoric panda to be found in Europe, the majority of other specimens date from around 10 million years ago. Given that the fossilized teeth in the National History Museum are more recent, they probably belonged to the last panda species on the European continent. Although closely related, A. nikol is more of a cousin than a direct descendant of the giant panda. Previous research has shown that the oldest direct descendant of the giant panda is a species found in Spain called Kretsoyarktos Beatrix. It existed at least 11.6 million years ago.

To further note, A. nikol was a vegetarian, although bamboo was probably not part of his diet. Today’s giant pandas have strong jaws and large, flat teeth to help grind the leaves, stems, and stems of healthy plants. Bamboo makes up 99 percent of the giant panda’s diet: Adults can eat 26 to 83 pounds of it each day. But A. nikolThe smaller teeth indicate that it probably did not have the strength to chew and crush the plant’s tough and inedible stems and instead chose softer vegetables to feed on.

“Probable competition with other species, especially carnivores and possibly other bears, explains the narrower dietary specialization of [modern] giant pandas to plant food in humid forest conditions,” Spasov said in the press release.

So how A. nikol disappear? Climate change, and in particular the drying of the Mediterranean basin, may have affected the entire ecosystem of plants in which mammals thrive. While this idea is still being investigated, paleontologists speculate that similar environmental conditions could have driven other closely related panda species such as Kretsoyarktos Beatrix to move from Europe to Asia 8 million years ago. From there, the ancient pandas would evolve into Ailuropodabuilding the playful bamboo lovers we know today.

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