How was Europe’s last panda discovered?
After a canine and a carnassial tooth of an unknown animal were found in Bulgarian coal deposits, they were given to the Bulgarian National Museum of Natural History.
On arrival, they were categorised by the museum’s former palaeontologist, Dr Ivan Nikolov, who deposited them in the collections. Many years later, Nikolai would name the new species after his former colleague after working out the origin and identity of the teeth.
‘They had only one label written vaguely by hand,’ the professor recalls. ‘It took me many years to figure out what the locality was and what its age was. Then it also took me a long time to realise that this was an unknown fossil giant panda.’
The researchers believe it is a panda based on the shape and size of the teeth when compared to other living and extinct species. However, it has larger and more complex ridges and lobes than its relatives, leading the researchers to describe it as a new species.
Based on the size of the teeth, it is believed that A. nikolovi would have been around the same size as a modern giant panda, but with a softer diet than the bamboo that these animals enjoy today.
The bear would have lived in ancient humid forests and swamps, which were uncommon in the Balkans at the time. Here, the scientists speculate that it may have used its large canines to defend itself from other animals which lived in the area, including sabre-toothed cats.
However, the species was unable to defend itself against the loss of its ancient habitat, as the swamps rapidly dried up when the Strait of Gibraltar became sealed around 5.9 million years ago, cutting off the Mediterranean from the Atlantic.
As the sea dried during this event, known as the Messinian salinity crisis, the ancient panda would have struggled to find the plants it depended on. Even though the Mediterranean was eventually reconnected to the Atlantic Ocean 5.3 million years ago, it came too late for A. nikolovi.
‘Giant pandas are a very specialised group of bears,’ Nikolai explains. ‘Even if A. nikolovi was not as great a habitat and food specialist as the modern giant panda, fossil pandas were specialised enough and their evolution was related to humid, wooded habitats.’
‘It is likely that climate change at the end of the Miocene in southern Europe, leading to aridification, had an adverse effect on the existence of the last European panda.’