Giant panda had dwarf ancestors

Beijing, Jun 19 | Updated: Jun 20 2007, 05:30am hrs
A joint team of American and Chinese anthropologists have for the first time discovered a skull from a pygmy-sized giant pandathe earliest-known ancestor of the giant pandathat lived in south China some two million years ago.

The ancestor of todays giant panda really was a pygmy giant panda, says Russell Ciochon, professor of Anthropology, University of Iowa.Ciochon 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 animals size.

Pandas are very unique bearsthe only bear species that is known to exist wholly on a vegetarian diet, adds Ciohon. 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, the report said.

Also, like its modern counterpart, it lived on bamboo shoots, as indicated by wear patterns recorded on teeth and specialised muscle markings, indicating heavy chewing, on the skull.

The new find, made about 18 months ago in a south China karst 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, Xinhua news agency reported.