You might assume that pandas have only ever lived in China, but new evidence suggests that the bears’ ancestors once lived in Europe, around 10 million years ago.
University of Toronto paleoanthropologist David Begun was hunting for hominid bones when he stumbled upon some mysterious teeth, which he believed might have belonged to a panda. He was right.
The teeth are from a previously unknown species related to pandas, which Begun and his team have named Miomaci pannonicum. They compared their shape and structure with the teeth of other bears, looking at how food had worn them down. They found that the teeth’s owner ate similar food to the pandas of today.
“Both species consumed tough plant foods, requiring shearing rather than crushing of food during chewing,” Louis de Bonis from the University of Poitiers in France told New Scientist. “This tells us that the way of life of the panda’s ancestors was very similar to the modern panda.”
“Miomaci could be considered not like a direct ancestor, but more like a ‘cousin’ of the modern panda,” he added.
Pandas today are famous for their diets – they while away their days gnawing on chewy bamboo. Veggie bears are pretty unusual; grizzly bears tend to enjoy salmon while polar bears feast on seals, for example.
Meat is energy-rich and high in protein, but apart from the occasional rodent, pandas seem to avoid it. Some research suggests that their umami taste receptor genes are switched off, meaning that meat just isn’t that tasty for them.
Interestingly, the new finding shows that relatives of pandas were eating plant-based diets a long, long time ago, millions of years before pandas evolved to specifically eat bamboo. This trait evolved in China, around 2 million years ago.
Pandas were living in China long before this happened, though, with Chinese fossils dating back 8 million years ago. For a long time, it was assumed that bears of the panda family have been confined to China ever since they split from other bear species.
However, the new discovery shows that pandas were living in Hungary 10 million years ago. What’s more, an 11.6 million-year-old giant panda was found in Spain in 2012. Therefore, there is growing evidence that pandas originated in Europe, before migrating to Asia.
“There are interesting similarities between animal fossils found in some European and Chinese sites in the late Miocene period, suggesting that there may have been a lot of traveling between the two areas,” Begun told New Scientist.
It’s still unclear whether the pandas went from Europe to Asia or vice versa but at the time of Miomaci, Europe was wetter and warmer than today, likely containing lush subtropical forests where the bears would have thrived. As the climate changed, they could have migrated to Asia in search of a more favorable environment.
[H/T: New Scientst]