The earliest known panda-like fossils have been found - in Spain!?

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This little feller is Agriarctos beatrix, which roamed the forests of Spain some eleven million years ago. It represents the earliest known member of the giant panda's evolutionary subfamily, and it was pretty much just ridiculously adorable.

Agriarctos beatrix is a member of the Ailuropodinae subfamily, which is one taxonomic level below the Ursid family in which all bears are a member. The Ailuropodinae subfamily is a lonely bunch, with the giant panda the only living member. This particular species, found near Nombrevilla in Zaragoza, Spain, is one of the most distant relatives of the panda that we've discovered, and we only know it from a pair of fossilized teeth.

Still, even with so little to go on, the team from Spain's National Museum of Natural Sciences and the University Valencia have been able to make some intriguing guesses about just what the bear was like, as you can see in the reconstruction above. Researcher Juan Abella explains:

"This bear species was small, even smaller than the Sun bear — currently the smallest bear species. It would not have weighed more than 60 kilos. This fur pattern is considered primitive for bears, such as that of the giant panda whose white spots are so big that it actually seems to be white with black spots. Its diet would have been similar to that of the sun bear or the spectacled bear that only eat vegetables and fruit and sometimes vertebrates, insects, honey and dead animals."


My favorite detail though has to be this one from the press release, which sounds wonderfully unlike typical bear behavior:

Agriarctos beatrix, from the Ursidae family and related to giant pandas, would have lived in the forest and could have been more sessile that those bears that tend to hunt more, such as the brown or polar bears. According to researchers, the extinct bear would have escaped from other larger carnivores by climbing up trees.


Via Estudios Geológicos. Image by SNIC.