Scientists have discovered the most recently known example of the long-extinct European panda.
The species lived six million years ago in the humid forests of Bulgaria, but it is thought to have been wiped out by climate change.
Curiously, experts say that unlike today’s iconic black and white bear, the European panda wouldn’t have eaten much bamboo because its teeth weren’t strong enough, when it was also forced of vegetarianism because it was outdone on meat.
The animal, called Agriarctos nikolovi, was identified from a few teeth collecting dust in a museum.
Professor Nikolai Spassov, from the Bulgarian Museum of Natural History, was intrigued after finding the teeth in the archives.
“They only had one vaguely handwritten label,” he said. “It took me many years to understand what the locality was and how old it was.
“Then it also took me a long time to realize that it was an unknown fossil giant panda.”
Scientists have found the most recently known example of the long-extinct European panda
Giant pandas need to eat 20-40 pounds of bamboo every day
While its numbers are slowly increasing, the giant panda remains one of the rarest bears in the world and it is classified as a vulnerable species.
An estimated 1,864 giant pandas live in the wild – in southwest China – and 548 in zoos and breeding centers around the world.
Experts don’t know how old giant pandas can grow in the wild, but the oldest captive-bred panda was 38 years old so far.
A wild panda’s diet is 99% bamboo, with the remaining 1% made up of small rodents.
Giant pandas need to consume about 20 to 40 pounds (10 to 20 kilograms) of bamboo each day to get the nutrients they need.
They stand about three to four feet tall when standing on all four legs.
Giant pandas reach reproductive maturity between four and eight years of age. They can breed until they are around 20 years old.
Female pandas only ovulate once a year, in the spring. A short period of two to three days around ovulation is the only time a giant panda is able to conceive.
Cubs do not open their eyes until they are six to eight weeks old and are not able to move independently until they are three months old.
A newborn panda is about the size of a stick of butter, about 1/900th the size of its mother.
Spasov and his colleagues explain that pandas are a “special group of bears” because they present one of the most intriguing evolutionary problems.
Scientists have been puzzled as to why, from such a carnivorous family, pandas evolved to eat only bamboo.
Now experts at the Bulgarian Museum of Natural History think they might have some answers.
Fossils of the basic grass that sustains the modern panda are rare in the European fossil record – and, in particular, in the Bulgarian Late Miocene – and the tooth cusps do not appear strong enough to crush the woody stems.
Instead, scientists believe it likely fed on softer plant matter, consistent with the general trend of increased reliance on plants in the evolutionary history of this group.
Sharing their environment with other large predators likely pushed the giant panda line toward vegetarianism.
Experts believe that European pandas found themselves competing with meat and ended up with plants as their most convenient evolutionary niche.
“Likely competition with other species, particularly carnivores and presumably other bears, explains the closer dietary specialization of giant pandas compared to plant food under rainforest conditions,” Spassov said.
He added that the discovery “shows how little we still know about ancient nature and also demonstrates that historical discoveries in paleontology can lead to unexpected results even today.”
The two tooth fossils analyzed 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 fossilized treasures when they were unearthed in the northwestern part of the country.
This new species is named Agriarctos nikolovi in his honor.
The coal deposits in which the teeth were found – which imbued them with a blackened hue – suggest that this ancient panda inhabited forested and swampy regions.
There, in the Miocene era, he probably consumed a largely vegetarian diet.
However, the researchers said that the panda’s teeth nevertheless provided sufficient defense against predators.
Additionally, the canines are comparable in size to those of the modern panda, suggesting that they belonged to a similarly sized or slightly smaller animal.
The giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca, pictured) feeds exclusively on fibrous bamboo
The authors believe that A. nikolovi likely became extinct as a result of climate change, likely due to the “Messinian salinity crisis” – an event in which the Mediterranean basin dried up, significantly altering the surrounding terrestrial environments.
“Giant pandas are a very specialized group of bears,” Professor Spassov added.
“Even though A. niklovi was not as specialized in habitats and food as the modern giant panda, the fossil pandas were sufficiently specialized and their evolution was linked to moist and forested habitats.
“It is likely that climate change at the end of the Miocene in southern Europe, leading to aridification, had a negative effect on the existence of the last European panda.”
The research was published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.
Why Giant Pandas Are Black And White: Bears Have Developed Distinctive Markings To Help Them Camouflage
With its black and white markings and cuddly face, the giant panda is one of the most distinctive creatures in the animal kingdom.
Now researchers have discovered why giant pandas have evolved to have these unique colorations – and it all has to do with camouflage.
Experts from the University of Bristol used cutting-edge image analysis techniques on rare photos of giant pandas in their natural environment to understand why they evolved to have these markings.
The analysis revealed that the black spots mixed with dark shades and tree trunks, while the white spots matched foliage and snow.
Meanwhile, pale brown tones blend into the background color, according to the team.
Experts from the University of Bristol say the dark spots help pandas blend into tree trunks, while their lighter spots help them camouflage against patches of snow.