Extinct panda from ancient Europe highlights debate over Giant Panda’s origins

The discovery of an extinct panda that roamed the forests and swamps of Europe millions of years ago could reignite debate about whether the ancestors of China’s iconic national animal actually came from Europe.

The only evidence of the newly-identified panda species dubbed Agriarctos nikolovi are two fossilized teeth found in a lump of coal in Bulgaria almost 50 years ago, according to a study published Sunday in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

Scientists say they show pandas were living in Europe about 6 million years ago and reinforce earlier discoveries.

The geographical origin of pandas goes back to the 1940s, when their fossils were found in Hungary. But giant pandas are now a celebrated national symbol in China, and the idea that their ancestors came from Europe is unwelcome there.

The newest European panda lived too recently to resolve that debate, and it wasn’t a direct ancestor of the giant panda, but the discovery of yet another panda species in Europe reinforces the idea that they originated there.

“The paleontological data show that the oldest members of this group of bears were found in Europe, and the European fossil [species] are more numerous,” said the study’s lead author, paleontologist Nikolai Spassov of Bulgaria’s National Museum of Natural History in Sofia.

“This suggests that the group may have developed in Europe and then headed to Asia, where they evolved later into Ailuropoda, the modern giant panda.”

Spassov found the fossilized teeth in an old collection at the museum, where they had been stored by a former curator, the geologist Ivan Nikolov. A barely legible note stored with them said they’d been found in the 1970s in northwestern Bulgaria, near a mountain village known for its coal-bearing sediments. But the teeth then lay undisturbed for almost 50 years until Spassov and his team started to research them.

Pandas are a type of bear, but genetic analysis shows their lineage diverged from other bears about 19 million years ago. They are recognized in fossils mainly from the distinct shapes of their teeth.

The new study suggests the newest European panda was a bit smaller than the giant panda.

The extinct panda mostly ate plants, although not almost exclusively bamboo like giant pandas today. Spassov said he suspects a common ancestor in the panda lineage had already adopted a mainly vegetarian diet, possibly because of competition from other predators for animal prey.

But Agriarctos nikolovi was probably the last panda to live in Europe. The study suggests the species lived mainly in swampy forests, as did the discovery of the fossilized teeth in a coal deposit.

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.