Anthropologists discover remains of earliest giant panda

June 18, 2007

Although it may sound like an oxymoron, a University of Iowa anthropologist and his colleagues report the first discovery of a skull from a "pygmy-sized" giant panda -- the earliest-known ancestor of the giant panda -- that lived in south China some two million years ago.

The ancestor of today's giant panda really was a pygmy giant panda, says Russell Ciochon, UI professor of anthropology. Ciochon (pronounced schuh-HON) is a co-author of an article published in the June 18-22 online edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Previous discoveries of teeth and other remains made between 1985 and 2002 had failed to establish the animal's size.

Ciochon says that the ancient panda (formally known as Ailuropoda microta, or "pygmy giant panda") was probably about three feet in length, compared to the modern giant panda, which averages in excess of five feet in length. Also, like it's modern counterpart, it lived on bamboo shoots, as indicated by wear patterns recorded on teeth and specialized muscle markings, indicating heavy chewing, on the skull.

The new find, made about 18 months ago in a south China karst (limestone) cave by Chinese researchers and co-authors Changzhu Jin and Jinyi Liu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, shows that the basic anatomy of the giant panda has remained largely unchanged for millions of years.

Ciochon says that the skull --, about one-half the size of a modern-day giant panda skull, but anatomically very similar -- indicates that the giant panda has evolved for more than three million years as a separate lineage apart from other bears and was adapted to eating bamboo very early in its development.

“Pandas are very unique bears -– the only bear species that is known to exist wholly on a vegetarian diet,” says Ciochon. “The evolution of this unique dietary specialization probably took millions of years to refine. Our new discovery shows the great time depth of this unique bamboo-eating specialization in pandas. Thus, pandas have been ‘uniquely pandas’ for many millions of years says Ciochon.”

Ciochon says that the find further helps establish conditions that existed in the region during the varying climatic conditions of the Pliocene and Pleistocene epochs, stretching back some three millions years before the present. The pygmy giant panda lived in lowland tropical bamboo forests. It is often found associated with the extinct elephant-like creature, Stegodon, and the giant extinct ape, Gigantopithecus. Today's giant panda is isolated in mountainous upland bamboo forests, partly due to the pressure of modern civilization.

Ciochon, anthropology professor and department chair in the University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, says that he plans to return to China this November to explore new cave sites in collaboration with Chinese colleagues. A Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Ciochon is internationally recognized for his contributions to the fields of primate paleontology and paleoanthropology in Asia concerning "anthropoid origins" and Homo erectus evolution and dispersal.

Source: University of Iowa

Explore further: Giant pandas arrive in Finland in Chinese charm offensive

Related Stories

Scientists should be super modelers

December 26, 2017

Scholars and conservationists want to aim for the right future to preserve biodiversity and plan sustainable environments. One of those scholars is calling for due diligence to make sure the right data, not conventional wisdom, ...

Climate change may slowly starve bamboo lemurs

October 26, 2017

Madagascar's Cat-sized greater bamboo lemurs are considered one of the most endangered primate species on Earth. They almost exclusively eat a single species of bamboo, including the woody trunk, known as culm. But they prefer ...

Recommended for you

Information engine operates with nearly perfect efficiency

January 19, 2018

Physicists have experimentally demonstrated an information engine—a device that converts information into work—with an efficiency that exceeds the conventional second law of thermodynamics. Instead, the engine's efficiency ...

Breakthrough study shows how plants sense the world

January 19, 2018

Plants lack eyes and ears, but they can still see, hear, smell and respond to environmental cues and dangers—especially to virulent pathogens. They do this with the aid of hundreds of membrane proteins that can sense microbes ...

Team takes a deep look at memristors

January 19, 2018

In the race to build a computer that mimics the massive computational power of the human brain, researchers are increasingly turning to memristors, which can vary their electrical resistance based on the memory of past activity. ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.