The fossilized upper molar and canine were originally found in coal deposits in the late 1970s and have been kept in the collection of the Bulgarian National Museum of Natural History for more than four decades.
“They just had a label that was vaguely handwritten,” said Nikolai Spassov, a professor at the museum and Author of a new study on teeth, in a press release. “It took me many years to find out what the site was and how old it was.
“This discovery shows how little we still know about the nature of antiquity, and also shows that historical discoveries in paleontology can still lead to unexpected results today,” he said.
While pandas are best known by their sole living representative, the giant panda, there were once a number of related species that roamed Europe and Asia.
The species discovered through the museum artifacts was the last known panda to live in Europe, according to the press release. Researchers named it Agriarctos nikolovi after the museum’s longtime paleontologist Ivan Nikolov, who originally cataloged the find.
The study found that the bear was as big as the modern giant panda or slightly smaller. It probably had a mostly vegetarian diet, but its meals would have been more varied than those of the panda’s only living relative, which only eats bamboo. The cusps of the teeth were probably not hard enough to crush the woody bamboo stems, suggesting the animal would have eaten softer plants, the research found.
The coal deposits where the teeth were found provided evidence that this ancient panda inhabited forested, swampy regions. Spassov and his co-author Qigao Jiangzuo, a panda specialist from Peking University in China, suggested that the panda may have gone extinct during an event in which the Mediterranean basin dried up and changed the environment.
“Giant pandas are a very specialized group of bears,” Spassov said in the press release.
“Even though A. niklovi wasn’t as specialized for habitats and food as the modern giant panda, fossil pandas were specialized enough and their evolution was associated with humid, forested habitats,” he said. “It is likely that climate change at the end of the Miocene in southern Europe, leading to dehydration, had a negative impact on the existence of the last European panda.”
The Miocene was 23 million to 5 million years ago.