An Unknown Species of Panda inhabited the Lands of Bulgaria 6 Million years ago

Society | August 1, 2022, Monday // 12:00
Bulgaria: An Unknown Species of Panda inhabited the Lands of Bulgaria 6 Million years ago @Flickr

An unknown until now species of giant panda inhabited the Balkans six million years ago. An article about the discovery of the Bulgarian scientist Prof. Nikolay Spasov and his Chinese colleague Qigao Jiangzuo has been published in the scientific publication of the American Society of Paleontology, Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

Today, the panda, a rare species in the world Red Book, lives only in the mountainous forests of Sichuan in China, Prof. Spasov from the National Natural History Museum at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences told BTA. He noted that what is interesting about this species of bear is its unique specialization to feed on plant food, namely bamboo.

In the distant past

Remains, although very rare, of fossil pandas, which give some idea about the evolution of this group, have been discovered both in Europe and in China, Spasov said. According to him, the species found in Bulgaria is much later and more evolved than all European fossil pandas so far and is at least as evolved as the Chinese genus, considered the direct ancestor of today's giant panda. "However, we cannot be sure that it is our panda that is the direct ancestor. Rather, it is a side branch that has gone quite far in its evolution," added the scientist.

He noted that in order for the panda to exist in the Balkans six million years ago, there had to be the right climatic conditions here - humid forests with a climate close to tropical.

Two strange teeth have been "hiding" their secrets for decades

The discovery was made after many years of hard work by the Bulgarian scientist. The puzzle is posed by the fossils of two teeth, which have long been in the scientific collection of the National Museum of Natural History, but there is extremely little information about them. “For a long time I could not figure out these teeth, because it was not clear neither the location, nor the age, nor exactly what it was, except that it was some kind of predator“, Spasov said. “In the end, we were able to establish that this is a new fossil species of giant panda, which in many ways already resembles today's panda in terms of its teeth”, he adds.

The panda - the special bear

The panda in itself is a unique animal, for a long time it was not known to which group it belongs, explained the professor. Today, after a series of molecular studies, it has been firmly established that it is a bear, but a very specialized bear that feeds almost exclusively on bamboo and lives in the mountains of Sichuan Province, China.

It sounds paradoxical that in Europe, and in Bulgaria, an ancient species was discovered that lived six million years ago, but paleontology really reveals new ancient worlds that at first glance we cannot imagine, noted Spasov. He added that the age of the find was determined by the data on the age of the coal seam where it was, accumulated by geologists and paleontologists. Coal is formed in swampy forests, so it is safe to say that this creature lived in humid forests, the scientist noted.

The special species that inhabited the Balkans

In any case, it is the most evolved fossil species in many respects of all the species known today in Europe. The European ones are very ancient and primitive, they have preserved primitive carnivorous marks, while the newly described species, which is much later than any previously known species from our continent, already has teeth that are specialized for an entirely vegetative way of life, or almost entirely, t .is they show an evolution towards the diet of today's giant panda. “And this is undoubtedly a very interesting fact for paleontology and evolution because it shows that about six million years ago these animals, the big pandas, were much more widespread than now”, noted Spasov.

The professor suggests that among the reasons the species is more vegetarian is competition with other carnivorous species. The paper suggests that despite its vegetarian diet, the teeth of this species provided sufficient protection against predators. The canine teeth are also comparable in size to those of a modern panda, suggesting they belonged to an animal of a similar size or only slightly smaller, the discoverer further suggests.

How a scientific discovery is made

The methods used in paleontology to establish such discoveries are to compare the find with all possible other remains by the method of rejection. First, you understand that it is a predator, then - that it is from the group of bears, then you compare it with those that are most similar and you understand that these are pandas, the scientist told the research process. Gradually, he found that there are currently none of the known pandas with exactly such teeth. It most closely resembles a genus found in Europe, but with more primitive teeth, Prof. Spasov said, adding that this shows that "our" species is clearly a new, more evolved species of that genus.

In response to a question, Prof. Spasov notes that in their work, molecular research is not yet possible because DNA cannot be extracted from fossils six million years old. Depending on the preservation conditions in which the remains were preserved, DNA can be extracted from Late Pleistocene objects, i.e. tens of thousands of years old. They have also been extracted from remains that are much earlier than this, but millions of years old, no one has extracted until now. “Because there is no organic substance to preserve this structure”, explained Spasov.

A hastily scribbled text hiding the old name of the Bulgarian village Ognyanovo delays the discovery for years

The fossil finds of the two teeth were probably discovered in the area of ​​the village of Ognyanovo, Elin Pelin municipality, back in the 1970s. This may have happened when the dam wall of the Ognyanovo Dam was built, suggested Prof. Spasov and added that there is information about coal seams in this area that are dated.

The two teeth were probably brought to my predecessor in the National Museum of Natural Sciences at the BAS, Dr. Ivan Nikolov, I received them as an inheritance”, Spasov said, adding that, “unfortunately, there was only one note with a hastily handwritten single a word. It took me many years to be able to read what was written - Gyuredzhia, and then many more years to understand what it was”, he noted. It turned out that the inscription was the old name of the village of Ognyanovo. “Only then was I able to search for the coal seams and get the data for their dating”, the scientist explained. From there on, the paleontological work followed - comparing these teeth with the hitherto known modern and fossil ones.

In fact, I have been working on identifying these remains throughout my career so far”, he said, adding that he has returned to the obscure find periodically over the years.

Hurry slowly

Prof. Spasov does not consider this long delay necessarily a bad thing. “I have become convinced that sometimes the delay leads to more benefits than harm”, he said, adding that in the meantime three fossil genera of giant pandas have been described, and this has given him the opportunity to navigate the taxonomy of this group and determine together with his colleague from China that this is not only a fossil giant panda but also a species new to science. “I named it in honor of Dr. Ivan Nikolov, who preserved these finds - Agriarctos nikolovi”, he added.

How did Agriarctos nikolovi disappear?

Probably the climatic changes at the end of the Miocene in southern Europe, which led to drought, had an adverse effect on the existence of the species”, the scientist believes. He suggests that the Balkan panda went extinct as a result of the Messinian Salinity Crisis, an event 5.96 to 5.33 million years ago in which the Mediterranean basin dried up, greatly altering the surrounding terrestrial environment.

The article presents two possible evolutionary paths for the spread of these animals. According to one, the Ailuropodini drifted from Asia and ended with A. nikolovi in ​​Europe. However, according to the scientist, "the oldest representatives of this group of bears were found in Europe", which suggests that the group may have developed in Europe and then moved to Asia.

Co-author Qigao Jiangzuo of Peking University, in China, was primarily credited with narrowing down the species' identity to the Ailuropodini, a genus in the bear family Ursidae.

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