About 2 million years ago, in lowland tropical forests of what is now China, lived an ancestor of the giant panda that was very similar to the famed vegetarian bear except about half the size, scientists said.
Writing on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the scientists described a complete skull and teeth of a pygmy-sized panda, shedding light on the origins of this unique, bamboo-munching bear.
The skull is about 60 percent of the size of a modern giant panda's and it has similar anatomical features, suggesting a similar lifestyle, they said.
The extinct bear, named Ailuropoda microta, is the earliest known member of the panda lineage, said Russell Ciochon, a University of Iowa anthropologist and one of the researchers.
"It's basically a miniaturized version of the living panda," Ciochon said in a telephone interview.
"Before, we only had teeth of this pygmy giant panda, just some isolated teeth. So we knew it existed, but we had no idea what the skull was like," he said.
"This skull is well-preserved, and has all its teeth intact, and on the basis of this fossil we can say that this bear was a miniaturized version of the modern panda," Ciochon said.
"This shows that the panda lineage has evolved over many millions of years separate from all the other species in the family of bears," he said.
The giant panda is considered the most specialized of any of the eight species of bears alive today. It is a carnivore that lost its hankering for meat and evolved into a committed vegetarian, scientists said.
The skull indicates the panda lineage has been evolving for millions of years completely separated from other bears. While some other bears will eat berries and other vegetation, the panda is the only fully vegetarian one.
Although it is one of the most recognizable animals on the planet, the giant panda is endangered, teetering on the edge of extinction mostly due to habitat loss and encroachment from people. They live in a few upland bamboo forests of China, isolated in rugged mountainous terrain.
It is estimated there are about 1,600 left in the wild.
The pygmy panda was about 1m long, compared to the modern giant panda at up to 2m long.
The creature lived in a moist, lowland tropical forest habitat that had bamboo as a dominant plant, the researchers said. It lived alongside two remarkable extinct creatures: the elephant-like Stegodon and the largest ape ever, Gigantopithecus, 3m tall and weighing up to 450kg.
The researchers believe the ancient panda ate bamboo shoots based on wear patterns on the teeth and specialized muscle markings on the skull that are evidence of heavy chewing. The evolution of this dietary specialization likely took millions of years to perfect, they said.
Bears appeared in the Miocene Epoch, which ran from about 25 million years ago to 5.5 million years ago.
The fossilized skull was found by Chinese researchers Jin Changzhu and Liu Jinyi in a limestone cave in southern China in 2001.
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