Nowadays, all of the 2,500 giant panda bears alive live in the Shaanxi, Gansu, and Sichuan provinces of central China. However, according to a new study which the journal Current Biology published, once upon a time, these bears had a much larger range. They were living in the southern part of China, as well as Myanmar and Vietnam. However, experts do not know how these ancient creatures were related to the fluffy and goofy ones we know today. This is why the discovery of a fossilized panda skull in a cave in southern China in 2014 is so important.
What’s even more interesting is that after successfully sequencing the bear’s mitochondrial genome, researchers found out that it belongs to an entirely new panda lineage. The skull is about 22,000-years old and it was found in Cizhutuo Cave in China’s Guangxi Province which is now empty of panda bears. The recently-sequenced genome actually represents the oldest panda bear DNA in the world. So, after struggling to create a panda family tree, the researchers realized that this species split from modern giant pandas about 183,000-years ago.
Fossilized panda bear skull offers important clues
According to Qiaomei Fu, a paleogenomics expert at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, even if this ancient panda has common traits to the modern giant pandas, it also has a completely separate history. Now, the next step is for the experts to sequence a genome from the panda skull’s nuclear DNA. It was reportedly easier for them to extract the mitochondrial DNA from the skull because there are 1,000 copies of it every cell. In comparison, there are only two copies of nuclear DNA in every cell and this makes the work a lot harder. It’s important for them to find out more about this new lineage and possibly shed some light on certain traits that giant pandas nowadays have.
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