I was always rather glad that the delightful cartoon Kung Fu Panda gave suitable publicity to the Red Panda. Veteran actor Dustin Hoffman voiced the feisty little martial arts maestro of the film and I know from my own daughter and her friends, a lot of young’ns decided to google real red pandas. We have them in our zoo here and they’re like sweet little ginger dogs who can climb. If the truth be known, I do prefer them to the dozy black-and-white varieties. The modern ones are fascinating enough in their own right, since modern DNA analysis has identified that they are a family within themselves – the Ailuridae, who link into the taxonomic superfamily of Musteloidea. Their close extinct relatives, Parailurus no longer walk the earth, and extant populations of red pandas are limited to regions of China and Tibet.
However, when I’ve stood and watched these wily wee imps frolic in light dustings of snow up at Belfast Zoo, I didn’t realise that their relatives once played amid the first flurries of snow heralding the beginnings of the Ice Age in the UK. It’s true – in the UK we had our very own red pandas. Let me introduce to you all Parailurus anglicus, the English Red Panda!
To start this rare story we have to go back to 1888 when Professor Dawkins (no, not that one; this one is William Boyd Dawkins, and was the first serious cave-archaeologist) discovered fragments of bones, including teeth, of a strangely familiar mammal. It looked like our little modern Red Panda, only about double the size. These bones were only some of the amazing finds discovered at Red Crag, near Felixstowe in Suffolk – back in 1846 Richard Owen also identified the first ancient cougar (Puma pardoides) known to the ‘modern’ world.
A quick word about Red Crag, before we go further, as it’s actually an important ‘character’ in this story. It’s a sandy and sediment-based formation on the Essex/Suffolk coast, dating to around 2.5 million years ago. It’s a phenomenal palaeoenvironmental site, and has yielded not just fossils of marine creatures of the Pliocene/Pleistocene transitional period, but also mammals, birds and pollen. A lot of the creatures whose remains have been found in the gritty red sediments belong to the very end of the Pliocene, when temperatures were considerably warmer. Finding the remains of a Red Panda in such a deposit verified Dawkins’ suspicions of a very different landscape just over 2.5 million years ago. The Britain of this period would have had closed forests filled with now extinct vegetation which preferred warmer temperatures. This was the landscape of Parailurus anglicus, the very English Panda.
The English Panda may have been roughly double the size of today’s little dog-sized chaps, it was not terribly different in shape. Although Parailurus is related to the modern Ailuridae, it became clear this extinct critter was a separate genus, because of its teeth. P. anglicus has a very distinctive upper fourth premolar, which is longer than it is wide. This difference makes it very different from related modern animals. Other bones were found during the 19th and 20th centuries across Europe, and the jury is still out if the skull found in Romania, which was given the synonym of Parailurus hungaricus, is the slightly smaller female of P. anglicus. Specimens of these have been found in Wölfersheim, in Germany, Arondelli in Italy, a couple of places in Slovakia and in Boynton, Britain. The English Panda was quite the European, it would appear!
All pandas, ancient and modern, love to eat bamboo. Well, they actually need to eat bamboo, as they cannot metabolise cellulose, although they do sometimes supplement their diet with fish, small birds, eggs and fruit. A recent experiment run for two weeks on some modern red pandas showed they much preferred new bamboo leaves and tender shoots to the tougher, mature parts of the plant. Maybe that’s what the unique molars of P.anglicus was adapted for. There’s considerable evidence that bamboo grew in the dense Early Pleistocene forests of 2 million years ago. Pollen records in Poland show the growth of Bambusa lugdunensis. This kind of environment would have been very comfortable for P. anglicus, who despite having the sharp teeth of a carnivore, are basically herbivorous.
In 1977 a new species of Parailurus was found, in the American state of Tennessee at the Gray Fossil site. It was named Pristinailurus bristoli, and it pre-dates Parailurus anglicus considerably. P. bristoli is obviously closely linked to their European and Eurasian Pliocene/Pleistocene cousins as they are remarkably similar, both physically and genetically. It’s entirely possible that Pristinailurus bristoli migrated from the New World to Eurasia, either filling an environmental niche, or interbreeding with earlier Eurasian members of the genus.
After all, the bamboo growing from Eurasia, right across to Alpine regions of Europe was pretty tempting for a peckish little panda. There is no indication that bamboo ever grew in Tennessee, even during earlier, milder temperatures than the peri-glacial phases of the early Pleistocene. It could be that a native wetland plant, the river cane (Arundinaria gigantea), substituted as food for the species. However, it is equally possible that the Tennessee panda had adapted to subsist on non-bamboo leaves. Or – and this may be more likely – the pollen of the bamboo has been identified as Poaceae, or grass. If this is the case, then the pollen assemblages of Red Crag, back in lovely Sussex, starts to make a lot more sense regards the English panda of the Early Pleistocene.
I’ve had a peep at bamboo pollen, and I can say it looks reasonably like grass (Poacea) pollen. There are differences under a good, high powered electron microscope, but if the pollen samples were a bit battered, or, heavens forbid, bloated after a wonky acetolysis treatment, they could look very like a common or garden grass pollen with a handy ‘spp’ stuck after it on a diagram! They’re big, simple monoporate (one pore) grains, and I hate to admit it, but I could have mistaken them for Secale (rye) very, very easily! They could easily be grouped as rather sorry-for-themselves poacea spp. or graminidites. Needless to say, Red Crag’s pollen assemblages include those possible suspects, suggesting that some kind of bamboo could indeed have been growing there at the start of the Pleistocene, some 2.4 to 2 million years ago, when our panda pals were living there. The environmental study of Red Crag also shows beautiful dinoflagellates (they’re some of my favourite things!) and foraminifera suited to a warm/ temperate environment. The pollen record indicates fluctuation between boreal and mixed coniferous-deciduous forest, perhaps hinting at the palaeoclimatic changes which were about to happen.
So, was Parailurus anglicus (and hungaricus) the descendant of a migrant New World critter who had followed the trail of juicy European and Eurasian bamboo forests? It’s possible, and may answer why this little chap became extinct. It depended on a very special diet which needed particular climatic conditions to grow. This is one of the few creatures who cannot point the paw at humans for their demise. We ourselves were only starting our journey as a species when these little ones were chattering in the forests. There was a much bigger, earth changing reason for the demise of P. anglicus and their kind.
Around 2. 5 million years ago, the climate started to change. The first continental ice sheets were developing, and as such, Early Pleistocene temperatures across Europe started to decline, slowly and gradually at first. This of course started to reflect in the vegetation coverage of forested areas. There were progressively longer periods of landscapes opening as the ice sheets inched their way south. At around 2.6 million years there had also been an electromagnetic reversal of the earth, the Matuyama event, and the environmental implications of that aren’t really understood fully yet.
Bamboo thrives best in wet, slightly loamy soils, with decent drainage. There are some species of bamboo which will grow in cold climates, but we’ve no way of knowing if they were present in Europe or Eurasia during the Early Pleistocene. At any rate, very little would survive the advancing glaciers for long. The only hope for many creatures were refugial zones, scattered across Europe. The little pockets of English panda populations across Europe could not survive as their primary food source gradually became extinct. The populations shrunk back to areas of Asia where bamboo continued to grow, hence the little colonies of Ailurus which exist there today. The English panda was probably one of the earliest victims of the advancing glaciers of the Ice Age which would reshape our islands, and our world so drastically.
Written by Rena Maguire (@justrena)
Anon. 2014. Available at: http://landscaping.about.com/od/tropicalplants/f/how_grow_bamboo.htm
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