Spanish Researchers Unearth Oldest Fossils Related To Giant Panda
November 15, 2012

Spanish Researchers Unearth Oldest Fossils Related To Giant Panda

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

When we think of pandas, we often think of China, where the gentle giants are found. But not all pandas have necessarily hailed from the Far East. That´s a new theory from Spanish researchers who have unearthed the oldest fossils of what could be a close relative of the giant panda.

The fossils are of two individuals, being called Kretzoiarctos beatrix, and are between 11.5 million and 12.5 million years old, according to the lead author of the discovery, Juan Abella, of the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Spain.

Describing the discovery in the journal PLoS ONE, Abella and colleagues say one of the fossils consist of two teeth, while the other includes a broken mandible and incomplete upper carnassial (large tooth). Abella said the team was able to come up with a proper genus and species designation for the fossils after careful comparisons were made with other known specimens in the animal kingdom.

When looking through the historical record, the oldest fossils in the panda lineage known in China date back only 7.2 to 8.2 million years, according to the researchers. However, the new fossil discovery does not mean that pandas evolved in Spain then migrated to China–as there is not enough evidence to support that theory as of yet.

So, Abella noted, experts cannot call this discovery a missing panda link. Although, it is certainly possible there are other older panda relative fossils out there waiting to be unearthed. Without more evidence it is impossible to paint a clear picture of what the panda family tree looked like this far back.

"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 in an e-mail to CNN.

During the time this panda would have thrived in Spain, the climate was more humid and warm, Abella explained. Based on this observation, fruits and plants would have been abundant, enabling the ancient panda to incorporate greater diversity of food into its diet. It´s not known if bamboo was present in Spain during this time, but there may have been other plants similar to it, he further explained.

Abella said the findings are only preliminary as there are still many unknowns about prehistoric pandas these fossils may have derived from. More fossils being found in the same area would greatly help in determining more about this mysterious creature, including how big they were.

"The discovery is very important to understand the origin of the lineage that leads to the giant panda millions of years after," Abella said in the emailed statement.

We now know that bears have lived in and around the Iberian Peninsula for at least the last 11.5 million years, noted Abella. There are still brown bears living in the mountainous regions of northern Spain.