November 15th, 2012 by James Ayre
The oldest fossils of any species from the Giant Panda family were recently discovered in Spain. These fossils represent the oldest known evidence of the endangered giant panda and the ecological niche that it fills.
The fossils have also shed some light on the origins of this unique bear, and its highly specialized diet.
The new find was just published on November 14th in the open access journal PLOS ONE by Juan Abella and researchers from the National Museum of Natural Sciences and the Catalan Institute of Paleontology, Spain.
The fossils discovered were two 11.6 million-year-old jaws and teeth. They were found in southwest Europe and are likely representatives of an unknown genus, probably the oldest members of the giant panda family. The fossils clearly show the characteristics that allow modern pandas bear to successfully live on tough, fibrous plants like bamboo.
Currently, the highly endangered giant panda, native to sections of China, is the only surviving member of this unique bear family.
Co-author Juan Abella says: “The new genus we describe in this paper is not only the first bear recorded in the Iberian Peninsula, but also the first of the giant panda’s lineage.”
Some background on pandas:
The panda, also known as the giant panda to distinguish it from the unrelated red panda, is a bear native to central-western and south western China. It is easily recognized by its large, distinctive black patches around the eyes, over the ears, and across its round body. Though it belongs to the order Carnivora, the panda’s diet is 99% bamboo. Pandas in the wild will occasionally eat other grasses, wild tubers, or even meat in the form of birds, rodents or carrion. In captivity they may receive honey, eggs, fish, yams, shrub leaves, oranges, or bananas along with specially prepared food.
The giant panda lives in a few mountain ranges in central China, mainly in Sichuan province, but also in the Shaanxi and Gansu provinces. As a result of farming, deforestation and other development, the panda has been driven out of the lowland areas where it once lived.
Wild population estimates vary; one estimate shows that there are about 1,590 individuals living in the wild, while a 2006 study via DNA analysis estimated that this figure could be as high as 2,000 to 3,000. Some reports also show that the number of pandas in the wild is on the rise. However, the IUCN does not believe there is enough certainty yet to reclassify the species from Endangered to Vulnerable. And the loss of habitat and genetic diversity that they have experienced is permanent, so it is unlikely that they will recover enough to form a truly healthy population.
Image Credits: Citation: Abella J, Alba DM, Robles JM, Valenciano A, Rotgers C, et al. (2012) Kretzoiarctos gen. nov., the Oldest Member of the Giant Panda Clade. PLoS ONE, 7(11): e48985. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0048985 and Panda via Wikimedia Commons
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