The fossilized upper molar and canine tooth were originally found 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.
“They had only one label, written indistinctly by hand,” said Nikolai Spasov, professor at the museum and author of a new dental study, in a press release. “It took me many years to understand what this area is and how old it is. Then it also took me a long time to realize that it was an unknown giant panda fossil.”
“This discovery shows how little we still know about ancient nature, and also demonstrates that historical discoveries in paleontology can lead to unexpected results even today,” he said.
While pandas are best known for their only living member, the giant panda, there were once a number of related species that roamed Europe and Asia.
According to a press release, the species found in museum artifacts was the last known panda to have lived in Europe. The researchers named it Agriarctos nikolovi after the museum’s longtime paleontologist Ivan Nikolov, who originally cataloged the find.
The study showed that the bear was about the size of a modern giant panda or slightly smaller. He probably ate mostly vegetarian food, but his food was more varied than that of the only living relative of the panda, which eats only bamboo. The study found that the protrusions of the teeth were probably not hard enough to crush the lignified bamboo stems, suggesting that the animal ate the softer plants.
The coal deposits in which the teeth were found testified that this ancient panda lived in wooded, swampy areas. Spasov and his co-author Qigao Jiangzuo, a panda specialist at Peking University in China, have suggested that the panda may have died out during the drying up of the Mediterranean Basin, which changed the environment.
“Giant pandas are a very specialized group of bears,” Spasov said in a press release.
“Even if A. niklovi was not as specialized in habitat and food as the modern giant panda, fossil pandas were quite specialized and their evolution was associated with a humid wooded habitat,” he said. “It is likely that climate change at the end of the Miocene in southern Europe, leading to aridity, adversely affected the existence of the last European panda.”
The Miocene epoch lasted from 23 to 5 million years ago.