Perhaps the bamboo-munching cuddly beast that we most closely associate with China is not, in fact, from that country. Juan Abella from Spain’s Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales recently published a study that analyzed the fossil teeth of a panda bear ancestor found in Spain. The teeth, discovered in northeastern Spain, belonged to an 11-million-year-old panda predecessor named Agriarctos beatrix. Agriarctos, however, is attracting the interest of paleontologists worldwide not only because it was found outside of China, but because it is the oldest panda relative found to date. In other words, pandas, which comprise the bear subfamily Ailuropodinae, did not originate in China. Scientists are still only speculating about where this species, and all pandas, originated, but many agree that it’s very possible that this early relation lived in southwestern Europe and migrated to China, all the time evolving into what we now recognize as a decidedly Chinese bear. A. beatrix could represent the first branch off the bear family tree (family Ursidae). The subfamily Ailuropodinae was the earliest to diverge from the bear lineage, however, the exact species to first branch off is yet unknown. Prior to the discovery of Spain’s Agriarctos, the oldest panda fossil belonged to Ailuropoda lufengensesis, which lived in southern China. An ancient panda skull finding made 11 years ago, also from southern China (see the 2007 Sciencemag.org article on this species), belonged to the species Ailuropoda baconi, which is only 1 million years old and was probably the immediate ancestor of the modern panda. Scientists hope that the discovery of Agriarctos beatrix, plus the future analysis of its teeth, will provide further insight into the relatively mysterious panda lineage.
Read more at National Geographic Daily News.
Find the original article in the journal Estudios Geológicos.