Pandas lived in Spain, say scientists

Paleontologists believe remains dug up in Zaragoza and Catalonia belong to creature’s ancestor

The discovery offers evidence that today's giant pandas may have originated in Europe rather than Asia.
The discovery offers evidence that today's giant pandas may have originated in Europe rather than Asia.ZHIHE ZHANG

Pandas are not so closely connected with China as once was thought, according to a group of Spanish scientists.

A team of paleontologists has identified fossil remains discovered in Spain dating from 11 to 12 million years ago as belonging to the oldest ancestor of today’s pandas yet found.

The group of scientists, headed by Juan Abella of the National Museum of National Sciences and made up of experts from the Miquel Crusafont Catalan Institute of Paleontology, Madrid’s Complutense University and the University of Valencia, have just revealed their findings in an article published by non-profit science organization PLOS.

The discovery changes the entire evolutionary history of the panda, says Abella.

“We think we have confirmed those bits of evidence that the remains found in Hungary pointed to,” he said, referring to fossils unearthed in the 1940s that suggested pandas may also have inhabited Europe during the Miocene period of 23 to 5.3 million years ago.

“We don’t have more fossils to establish the evolutionary chain nor to confirm we are talking about a direct ancestor, but we can say that the ones we have analyzed form part of this group.”

The evolutionary history of the giant panda, which today only lives in China, has been the object of debate among biologists and paleontologists for decades. The majority view situates their origin in Asia, despite the evidence provided by Hungary remains. Until now, however, a lack of records from the Miocene era has prevented the confirmation of the opposing hypothesis.

The fossils analyzed in the article – several teeth and a jaw bone – are nothing new, but had not previously been specifically listed or described. Two of the teeth were found in the 1990s in the town of Nombrevilla, Zaragoza, and deposited in the National Museum of Natural Sciences, while the jaw and the other teeth were recently found in the Abocador de Can Mata in Hostalets de Pierola, in Catalonia, and deposited at the Miquel Crusafont Catalan Institute of Paleontology.

The scientists have named their find Kretzoiarctos, in honor of paleontologist Miklós Kretzoi, who for many years led the excavations where the Hungarian remains were found.