Paleontologists have come across the oldest fossils identified as a relative of the giant panda in Spain, dated from 12 million years ago. A highly peculiar find since this unique animals is native to central-western and south western China.

Giant panda in tree

Holla, humans!

The giant panda belongs to the order Carnivora, which is rather ironic since its highly specialized diet consists of 99% bamboo. As a result of farming, deforestation and other development, the panda has been driven out of the lowland areas where it once lived. Estimates have only 1,590 individuals living in the wild.

Juan Abella, at the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Spain, and colleagues came across fossils from two specimens identified as a new species called Kretzoiarctos beatrix. One set consists of two teeth and the other a broken mandible and incomplete upper carnassial (large tooth), both however show the characteristics that allow modern pandas bear to successfully live on tough, fibrous plants like bamboo.

Previously the earliest panda relative was found in China and was considerably younger, dated as being 7 to 8 million years. These findings, however, aren’t enough to say that the giant panda developed in Spain and then migrated in China, like some might be quick to shout “missing link”. Some 12 million years ago, the climate in the region was a lot more humid and warm than it is today, meaning there were plenty of fruits and plants that enabled the ancient panda to incorporate more plants in its diet. Scientists aren’t too sure whether bamboo was present at the time, but other similar  fibrous plants associated with humid climate might have acted as a replacement.

“That fossil record is very fragmentary and so it is difficult to state 100% sure that one fossil species was the direct ancestor of an extant one,” Abella said.

Indeed, little is known about these ancient giant panda ancestors and it’s surprising enough the scientists were able to derive so much information from so little samples. Hopefully, more specimens might be uncovered, which might shed light on how they might look like or how big they were. A genetic sequence would definitely be interesting as well.

“The discovery is very important to understand the origin of the lineage that leads to the giant panda millions of years after,” Abella said. “It may also help scientists to understand the adaptations in both the skull and jaw, that helps, this unique bear, to be able to feed on hard bamboo stems.”

The fossils were described in the journal PLOS ONE.

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