New species of pangolin, the oldest in Europe, discovered in Romania

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A thorough analysis of fossils from one of Eastern Europe’s most significant 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 not confirmed until now.

The bone, a humerus—or upper arm bone—came from Grăunceanu, a rich fossil deposit in the Olteţ River Valley of Romania. For nearly a decade, Terhune and an international team of researchers have focused their attention on Grăunceanu and other sites of the Olteţ.

Researchers previously suspected that this species lived in Europe in the early Pleistocene, the geological epoch in the history of our planet that began about 2,588,000 years ago and ended 11,700 years ago.

“What’s especially exciting is that although some work in the 1930s suggested the presence of pangolins in Europe during the Pleistocene, those fossils had been lost, and other researchers doubted their validity,” said Claire Terhune, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Arkansas. “Now we know for sure that pangolins were present in Europe around at least 2 million years ago.”

“It’s just a single bone, but it is a new species of a kind of a weird animal. We’re proud of it because the for pangolins is extremely sparse. This one happens to be the youngest pangolin ever discovered from Europe and the only pangolin fossil from Pleistocene Europe,” the anthropologist added.

The new species of pangolin was named Smutsia olteniensis and shares several unique traits with other living members of the genus Smutsia, which are currently found only in Africa.

The new pangolin fossil is between about 1.9 to 2.2 million years old, placing it within the range of the Pleistocene Epoch, which ran from roughly 2.6 million years ago to about 11,700 years ago. The identification of this fossil as a pangolin is significant because previous research suggested that pangolins disappeared from the European paleontological record during the middle-Miocene, closer to 10 million years ago. Previous work hypothesized that pangolins were pushed toward more tropical and sub-tropical equatorial environments due to global cooling trends.

These sites, initially discovered because of landslides during the 1960s, have produced fossils from a wide variety of animal species, including a large terrestrial monkey, short-necked giraffe, rhinos and saber-toothed cats, in addition to the new pangolin species.

Terhune’s collaborators were Sabrina Curran at Ohio University, Timothy Gaudin the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and Alexandru Petculescu at Emil Racoviţă Institute of Speleology in Bucharest.

Modern pangolins now live in Asia and Africa, the species attracting worldwide attention due to the hypothesis that it may be the missing link to explain the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus from bats to humans. They are also among the most poached animals in the world due to the demand for their scales for traditional Chinese medicine.

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