Six million years ago, a relative of today’s giant panda roamed ancient forests — but in Bulgaria, not China, scientists say.
Researchers used a set of fossilized teeth discovered in the 1970s to uncover a new species of panda. The teeth were first discovered by paleontologist Ivan Nikolov, and the species bears his name — Agriarctos nikolovi.
The find is described in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.
The teeth are shiny and black because they fossilized in coal deposits in Bulgaria. Researchers believe they date from the Messinian age — 7.2 million to 5.3 million years ago — and that the animal lived in humid forests and swamps. It was probably comparable in size to modern pandas, which can weigh up to 250 pounds.
The fossilized teeth are less robust than those of modern-day pandas, which chomp on woody bamboo, and researchers think the ancient bears relied on softer plants instead.
The Bulgarian and Chinese research team posits that the newly discovered bear wasn’t a direct ancestor of modern giant pandas. Rather, they believe that its evolutionary family either moved from Asia to Europe — and died out with A. nikolovi — or from Europe to Asia, where it evolved into another genus of panda.
If the pandas migrated from Europe to Asia, the researchers say, it was probably because of a climate shift that “had an adverse effect on the existence of the last European panda.” When the Miocene epoch ended about 5.3 million years ago, Europe became much drier, and the swamps and forests the bear relied on for food disappeared. In the same period, the Mediterranean Sea is thought to have partially or almost completely dried up, becoming extremely salty in the process.
“This discovery shows how little we still know about ancient nature and demonstrates also that historic discoveries in paleontology can lead to unexpected results, even today,” Nikolai Spassov, who directs Bulgaria’s National Museum of Natural History and co-wrote the paper, said in a news release.