The recent discovery of an ancient panda species in Bulgaria is reinforcing previous studies that point to panda bears originating in Europe — a notion that China, where the giant panda is a national symbol, has been slow to accept.
The species, known as Agriarctos nikolovi, was identified after scientists at the Bulgarian National Museum of Natural History investigated two fossilized teeth that were first unearthed from coal deposits near a village northwest of the country in the late 1970s.
The pair of teeth, which included an upper canine and an upper molar, were found in an old collection at the museum. Since they were never cataloged properly, they remained undisturbed for decades following their discovery.
In their study published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, the scientists revealed that the panda roamed Europe about six million years ago. This was before an event known as the Messinian salinity crisis (MSC) dried the Mediterranean Sea and consequently left the previously swampy forests uninhabitable for the species.
A. nikolovi is believed to be the last of Europe’s pandas. Unlike other previously discovered species in the continent, it had much larger teeth, making it more similar in size to modern giant pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca).
Origins of the giant panda were first theorized in 1942 after scientists found fossilized teeth aged seven million years old in Hungary. In 2017, teeth and jaws that belonged to a 10 million-year-old “cousin” were also discovered in the country.
China, which declared the giant panda as its national animal, has been skeptical of a European origin. After the 2017 Hungary discovery, Zhang Jinshuo, a senior engineer with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said it was “still premature to say giant pandas originated in Europe because older fossils of giant pandas may be found in the future in other places.”
While A. nikolovi is not a direct ancestor of the giant panda, the fact that it was found in Bulgaria adds weight to the European origin theory. Paleontologist Nikolai Spassov, who led the latest study, suspects that such pandas eventually moved to Asia.
“The paleontological data show that the oldest members of this group of bears were found in Europe,” Spassov said in a statement. The scientists believe the evidence suggests that the group developed in Europe before heading to Asia, where they later evolved into Ailuropoda, or the modern giant panda.
Spassov described A. nikolovi as a “close relative” of the giant panda. However, it remains unclear how exactly they are linked, as well as how other ancient European pandas are connected to the giant panda and other ancient Asian pandas.