'Bulgarian panda' may have been Europe's last panda species - study

This ancient panda relative would likely have lived in the swampy forests of modern-day Bulgaria six million years ago, eating a mostly vegetarian diet.

 A giant panda eats bamboo inside an enclosure at the Moscow Zoo on a hot summer day in the capital Moscow, Russia June 7, 2019. (photo credit: REUTERS/TATYANA MAKEYEVA/FILE PHOTO)
A giant panda eats bamboo inside an enclosure at the Moscow Zoo on a hot summer day in the capital Moscow, Russia June 7, 2019.

Scientists may have uncovered the last-ever species of giant panda to have ever roamed the forests of Europe, according to a new study.

The findings of this study were published in the peer-reviewed academic periodical The Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

The study sheds light on much of the ancient history of nature that is still not fully understood.

Giant pandas

The panda bear, also known as the giant panda or panda, is arguably one of the most iconic species of bear in the world. 

Endemic to China, these bears are famous for their black and white fur patterns, cute and silly nature, breeding difficulties and having been incredibly endangered - though conservation efforts have actually improved their numbers to the point where they are now considered vulnerable and not endangered.

Panda Tai Shan (credit: AP)Panda Tai Shan (credit: AP)

Its adorable nature has seen it be used as a national symbol of China and having been used as a form of panda-diplomacy.

The name panda itself is originally French, but no one knows exactly what it means.

The panda bear should also not be confused with the red panda, which is a much smaller non-bear mammal.

Despite some misconceptions that pandas are actually related to raccoons, panda bears are confirmed to be bears.

However, pandas diverged from other bears around 19 million years ago, far before many of the other bears we know of would have evolved.

This can be seen in some of the many ways in which pandas are different from other bears, with the most visible difference being a thumb-like bone that has formed on its paw that helps it grip bamboo.

Are pandas unique? 

It turns out, the answer is no - at least, not always. There have been some other examples of bears in the Ailuropoda genus before, though they are all extinct. This is also the case of its relatives in the Ailuropodini subfamily.

Evidence of a new panda having once existed has been discovered.

Flag of Bulgaria. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)Flag of Bulgaria. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The study on the Bulgarian Panda

The researchers focused on a fossil in found in Bulgaria that seem to point to the existence of another member of Ailuropodini: Agriactos nikolovi

The fossil in question were of two teeth discovered in Bulgaria in the 1970s and catalogued by paleontologist Ivan Nikolov, in whose honor the species is named.

To elaborate, there were two distinct lineages that descended from the Ailuropodini subfamily: Aliurarctos, which went to Asia and would become Ailuropoda, and Agriarctos, which went to Europe.

And it is believed that this fossil seems to belong to that lineage. And judging by the time frame, it was likely Europe's last panda species.

What is notable about this panda-relative, which would have lived in the area around six million years ago, is that not only did it live in Europe, but it certainly didn't eat bamboo.

The teeth contained coal deposits, indicative that this prehistoric panda thrived in swampy forests. It was likely still largely a vegetarian, but it wasn't bamboo - this is rare enough in Europe anyway but these teeth also likely weren't even strong enough to eat it.

Why did the European panda eat plants? 

Most likely, the panda cousin didn't want to compete with other carnivores in the area, so it decided to focus on plant life.

However, it could still have been an adequate defense against predators - even though modern pandas don't actually have any natural predators.

But obviously, this Bulgarian panda is no longer around, so what happened to it?

Well, according to the researchers, it likely was a climate change event. Specifically, an event known as the Messinian salinity crisis, when the terrain around the Mediterranean basin was altered by the basin drying up.

This could have spelled the end for this panda species.