Fossils of Europe’s last panda species discovered in Bulgaria

Scientists have discovered the ancient European cousins of the modern giant panda, which may have been Europe’s last.

Fossilized teeth originally found in the 1970s in Bulgaria have been found to belong to a close relative of the modern giant panda.

The new species has been named Agriarctos nikolovi in honour of the palaeontologist who originally catalogued the fossils.

This animal is thought to have inhabited the forested wetlands of Bulgaria around six million years ago. Scientists believe it is currently the last known and ‘most evolved’ European giant panda.

Unearthed from the bowels of the Bulgarian National Museum of Natural History, the two fossils of teeth provided new evidence of a relative of the modern giant panda. Unlike today’s iconic black and white bear however, it was not reliant on purely bamboo.

‘Although not a direct ancestor of the modern genus of the giant panda, it is its close relative,’ explained the Museum’s Professor Nikolai Spassov, whose findings were published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

‘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,’

‘They had only one label written vaguely by hand,’ said Professor Spassov. ‘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 realize that this was an unknown fossil giant panda,’

The coal deposits in which the teeth were found suggest that this ancient panda inhabited forested, swampy regions where it likely consumed a largely vegetarian diet.

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

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

The paper speculates that the A. nikolovi’s teeth provided ample defence 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 propose that the animal could have become extinct as a result of climate change when the Mediterranean basin dried up, significantly altering the surrounding terrestrial environments.

The group is thought to have developed in Europe and then headed to Asia, where the ancestors of another genus, Ailurarctos, developed. These early pandas may then have later evolved into Ailuropoda — the modern giant panda.

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