Scientists have discovered the most recently known example of the long-vanished European panda.
The species lived in the swamp forests of Bulgaria six million years ago, but is believed to have been wiped out by climate change.
Intriguingly, 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, while also being forced into vegetarianism as it was outcompeted on meat. .
The animal, named Agriarctos nikolovi, was identified from a pair of teeth that collected dust in a museum.
Professor Nikolai Spassov, of the Bulgarian Natural History Museum, became intrigued after finding the teeth in the archives.
“They only had one label written vaguely by hand,” he said. ‘It took me many years to find out what the place was and what the age was.
“Then it also took me a long time to realize that this was an unknown fossil giant panda.”
Scientists have found the most recently known example of the long-disappeared European panda
Giant pandas need to eat 20-40 pounds of bamboo every day
Although numbers are slowly increasing, the giant panda remains one of the rarest bears in the world and is classified as a vulnerable species.
It is estimated that 1,864 giant pandas live in the wild – in southwestern China – and 548 in zoos and breeding centers around the world.
Experts don’t know what age giant pandas can reach in the wild, but the oldest panda raised in captivity to date was 38 years old.
A wild panda’s diet consists of 99 percent bamboo, with the remaining one percent 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 are about three to four feet tall when standing on all four legs.
Giant pandas reach breeding maturity between four and eight years. They can be reproductive until about age 20.
Female pandas ovulate only once a year, in the spring. A short period of two to three days around ovulation is the only time a giant panda can become pregnant.
Cubs don’t open their eyes until they are six to eight weeks old and can’t move on their own until three months old.
A newborn panda is about the size of a sandwich, or about 1/900th the size of its mother.
Spassov and his colleagues explain that pandas are a “group of idiosyncratic bears” because they represent one of the more intriguing evolutionary problems.
Scientists are baffled as to why pandas from such a carnivorous family evolved to eat only bamboo.
Now experts at the Bulgarian Natural History Museum 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 don’t seem strong enough to crush the woody stems.
Instead, scientists think it likely fed on softer plant material — in line with the general trend toward greater plant dependence in this group’s evolutionary history.
Sharing their environment with other large predators likely drove the giant panda lineage toward vegetarianism.
The experts believe that European pandas were outcompeted for meat, leaving plants as their most suitable evolutionary niche.
“The likely competition with other species, especially carnivores and presumably other bears, explains the closer food specialization of giant pandas towards plant foods in moist forest conditions,” Spassov said.
He added that the find “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 fossils of teeth analyzed were originally found in Bulgaria in the late 1970s.
The upper carnassial tooth and an upper canine tooth were originally cataloged by paleontologist Ivan Nikolov, who added them to the museum’s hoard 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 have given them a blackened hue — suggest this ancient panda lived in wooded, swampy areas.
There, during the Miocene, it probably consumed a largely vegetarian diet.
However, the researchers said the panda’s teeth nevertheless provided adequate protection from predators.
In addition, the canines are similar in size to those of the modern panda, suggesting they belonged to an equally large or only 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 because of the “Messinian salt crisis” — an event in which the Mediterranean region dried up, significantly altering the surrounding terrestrial environments.
“Giant pandas are a highly specialized group of bears,” added Professor Spassov.
Even though A. niklovi was not as specialized in habitats and food as the modern giant panda, fossil pandas were specialized enough and their evolution was related to moist, forested habitats.
“It is plausible that climate change at the end of the Miocene in southern Europe, resulting in desiccation, had a negative effect on the existence of the last European panda.”
The research is published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.
Why giant pandas are black and white: Bears developed distinctive markings to help camouflage them
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 evolved to have these unique colors — and it’s all to do with camouflage.
Experts from the University of Bristol used state-of-the-art image analysis techniques on rare photos of giant pandas in their natural habitat to understand why they evolved to have these markings.
The analysis found that the black spots mixed with dark hues and tree trunks, while the white spots matched foliage and snow.
Meanwhile, light brown hues merge with the ground color, the team said.
University of Bristol experts say the dark spots help pandas blend in with tree trunks, while their lighter spots allow them to camouflage against bits of snow