Europe’s youngest pangolin

The humerus bone of a new species of pangolin has been discovered in Graunceanu, a famous Pleistocene fossil site in Romania, confirming its existence in Europe.

Further analysis of fossils from one of Eastern Europe’s most important paleontological sites has led to the discovery of a new species of pangolin, previously thought to have existed in Europe during the early Pleistocene but which has not been confirmed so far.

“It’s not a fancy fossil,” said Claire Terhune, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Arkansas. “It’s just a single bone, but it’s a new species of a bizarre genus of animal. We’re proud of that because the pangolin fossil record is extremely rare. This one just happens to be the youngest pangolin ever. discovered in Europe and the only European pangolin fossil from the Pleistocene.

pangolin humerus

The newly described specimen for the fossil pangolin species Smutsia olteniensis. Credit: Photo by Claire Terhune, University of Arkansas

The bone, a humerus – or arm bone – came from Graunceanu, a rich fossil deposit in the Oltet River Valley in Romania. For nearly a decade, Terhune and an international team of researchers have focused their attention on Graunceanu and other sites in Oltet. These sites, originally discovered due to landslides in the 1960s, have yielded fossils of a wide variety of animal species, including a great ground ape, a short-necked giraffe, rhinos and tooth-toothed cats. saber, in addition to the new species of pangolin.

Claire Terhune

Claire Terhune, University of Arkansas. Credit: University of Arkansas

“What is particularly exciting is that although some work in the 1930s suggested the presence of pangolins in Europe during the Pleistocene, these fossils had been lost and other researchers doubted their validity,” said Terhune. . “Now we know for sure that pangolins were present in Europe at least 2 million years ago.”

Modern pangolins exist in Asia and Africa. Often called scaly anteaters, they look a bit like the armadillos that roam the southern United States. With scales from head to tail, they are sometimes mistaken for reptiles, but modern pangolins are actually mammals and are more closely related to carnivores. They are also among the most illegally trafficked animals in the world. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the eight species of pangolins living on two continents range from “vulnerable” to “critically endangered”.

The new pangolin fossil is between around 1.9 and 2.2 million years old, putting it in the range of the Pleistocene epoch, which was around 2.6 million years ago about 11,700 years ago. The identification of this fossil as a pangolin is significant because previous research suggested that pangolins disappeared from European paleontological records during the Middle Miocene, more than 10 million years ago. Previous work has speculated that pangolins were being pushed into more tropical and subtropical equatorial environments due to global cooling trends.

As Europe’s youngest and best-documented fossil pangolin and Europe’s only Pleistocene fossil, the new species revises a previous understanding of pangolin evolution and biogeography. Smutsia olteniensisas the new species is called, shares several unique traits with other living members of the genus Smutsiecurrently only found in Africa.

Reference: “The youngest pangolin (Mammalia, Pholidota) in Europe” by Claire E. Terhune, Timothy Gaudin, Sabrina Curran and Alexandru Petculescu. December 21, 2021, Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.
DOI: 10.1080/02724634.2021.1990075

This work was published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. Terhune’s collaborators were Sabrina Curran from Ohio University, Timothy Gaudin from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and Alexandru Petculescu from the Emil Racovita Institute of Speleology in Bucharest.

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