Panda bears are restricted to remote mountains in China and have similar-sized bodies today. But fossils show that in years past some were mini-pandas, while others were giants. Plus, they lived in places far-flung from China. A new find described a mini-panda fossil fragment from Spain, reviving questions about the origin, migration, and demise of panda bears through history.
Researchers from Spain’s National Museum of Natural Sciences and the University of Valencia described in the journal Estudios Geologicos two fossil teeth of a panda-like bear that was smaller than today’s smallest bears. It was part of a fossil assemblage of “an extraordinary concentration of micro-mammals” that were mixed with fossils of “large mammals [that] were also abundant.”1 By comparing minute features of the teeth to those of similar-looking fossil teeth from France, the authors made a case for naming it as a new species.
The study authors also speculated that a formerly more tropical Spanish climate favored the small pandas during the Ice Age. Today, the area where the fossils were found has a dry climate. Perhaps the change to drier conditions lessened available habitat and food such that the ancient Spanish mini-pandas could no longer survive. And it didn’t help their survival that at least some of them were swept away, buried in mud, and fossilized during an Ice Age catastrophe.2
Pandas dying from decreased habitat and from catastrophic events makes sense and is exactly what is currently happening in the dwindling Chinese panda population.3 But tropical climates do not deserve credit for favoring certain creatures.
The study authors said in a Physorg science news release, “the extinct bear would have escaped from other larger carnivores by climbing up trees.”4 If so, then perhaps it would also have found its food from higher tree branches, thus filling that niche while living alongside its larger landlocked cousins….
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