Europe’s last pandas were giant weaklings | Sunday Observer

Europe’s last pandas were giant weaklings

7 August, 2022

Scientists have discovered the most recent known example of the long-vanished European panda.

The species lived six million years ago in the wetland forests of Bulgaria but is thought to have been wiped out by climate change.

The animal, called Agriarctos nikolovi, was identified from a couple of teeth gathering dust in a museum.

Prof. Nikolai Spassov, from the Bulgarian Museum of Natural History, became intrigued after finding the teeth in the archives.

‘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.’

Spassov and his colleagues explain that pandas are a ‘group of peculiar bears’ because they present one of the more intriguing evolutionary problems.

Scientists have been left bemused as to why, out of such a carnivorous family, pandas evolved to only eat bamboo.

Now, experts at the Bulgarian Museum of Natural History think they may have some answers.

Fossils of the staple grass that sustains the modern panda are rare in the European – and, especially, in the Bulgarian late Miocene – fossil record and the cusps of the teeth do not appear strong enough to crush the woody stems.

Instead, scientists believe it likely fed on softer plant materials — aligning with the general trend toward increased reliance on plants in this group’s evolutionary history.

Sharing their environment with other large predators likely drove the giant panda lineage toward vegetarianism.

The experts think that European pandas found themselves outcompeted on meat and were left with plants as their most convenient evolutionary niche.

‘The likely competition with other species, especially carnivores and presumably other bears, explains the closer food specialisation of giant pandas to vegetable food in humid forest conditions,’ said Spassov.

He added that the find ‘shows how little we still know about ancient nature and demonstrates also that historic discoveries in palaeontology can lead to unexpected results, even today.’

The two fossils of teeth analysed were originally found in Bulgaria in the late 1970s.

The upper carnassial tooth, and an upper canine, were originally cataloged by paleontologist Ivan Nikolov, who added them to the museum’s trove of fossilised treasures when they were unearthed in the northwestern part of the country.

This new species is named Agriarctos nikolovi in his honour.

The coal deposits in which the teeth were found – which have imbued them with a blackened hue – suggest that this ancient panda inhabited forested, swampy regions.

There, during the Miocene epoch, it likely consumed a largely vegetarian diet.

However, the researchers said the panda’s teeth nonetheless provided ample defense against predators.

In addition, the canines are comparable in size to those of the modern panda, suggesting that they belonged to a similarly sized or only slightly smaller animal.

The authors believe A. nikolovi likely became extinct as a result of climate change, probably because of the ‘Messinian salinity crisis’ — an event in which the Mediterranean basin dried up, significantly altering the surrounding terrestrial environments.

‘Giant pandas are a very specialised group of bears,’ Prof. Spassov added.

‘Even if A. niklovi was not as specialised in habitats and food as the modern giant panda, fossil pandas were specialised 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 has been published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

- Daily Mail