The upper and canine molars were originally fossilized in the late 1970s in coal deposits and have been kept in the collection of the Bulgarian National Museum of Natural History for more than four decades.
said Nikolai Spasov, a professor at the museum and Author of a new study on the teeth, in a press release. “It took me many years to figure out what the area was and what its age was. Then it also took me a long time to realize that this was an unknown fossil giant panda.”
“This discovery shows how little we know about ancient nature and also shows that historical discoveries in paleontology can lead to unexpected results, even today,” he said.
While the panda is best known for its only living representative, the giant panda, there was a group of related species that roamed throughout Europe and Asia.
According to the press release, the species discovered through artifacts in the museum was the last known panda living in Europe. Researchers named it Agriarctos nikolovi after the long-time paleontologist Ivan Nikolov who worked at the museum, and who originally cataloged the find.
The study revealed that the bear was the size of a modern giant panda or slightly smaller. He probably ate a mostly vegetarian diet, but his meals would have been more varied than those of the only surviving panda relative, which eats only bamboo. The research indicated that the dental balconies were likely not hard enough to crush the woody stems of the bamboo, suggesting that the animal would have eaten softer plants.
Coal deposits in which the teeth were found provided evidence that this ancient panda inhabited woodland and swamp areas. Spasov and co-author Qigao Jiangzuo, a panda specialist from Peking University in China, suggested that the panda might have become extinct during an event in which the Mediterranean basin dried up, altering the surrounding environment.
“Giant pandas are a highly specialized group of bears,” Spasov said in the statement.
“Even if A. niklovi was not a habitat and food specialist like modern giant pandas, panda fossils were sufficiently specialized and their evolution was related to moist wooded habitats,” he said. “It is possible that climate change at the end of the Miocene in southern Europe, which led to the drought, had a negative impact on the existence of the last European pandas.”
The Miocene epoch was 23 million to 5 million years ago.