Researchers discover fossil of new species of pangolin in Europe

Newly described specimen of the fossil pangolin species Smutsia olteniensis. Credit: Claire Terhune, University of Arkansas.

Deeper analysis of fossils from one of the most important fossil sites in Eastern Europe has led to the discovery of a new species of pangolin, which was previously thought to have existed in Europe during the early Ice Age but has not been confirmed until now.

“It’s not an imaginary fossil,” said Claire Terhune, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Arkansas. “It’s just one bone, but it’s a new kind of strange animal. We’re proud of it because the fossil record for pangolins is so meager. This animal just happens to be the smallest anteater ever discovered in Europe and the only pangolin fossil from Ice Age Europe.”

Humerus – or humerus bone – came from Grăunceanu, a rich fossil deposit in the Olteţ River valley in Romania. For nearly a decade, Terhune and an international team of researchers have focused their attention on Grăunceanu and other sites of Olteţ. These sites, initially discovered by landslides during the 1960s, have produced fossils of a variety of animal species, including a large ground monkey, short-necked giraffe, rhinoceros, and saber-toothed cats, as well as newer pangolin species.

“Especially exciting is that although some work in the 1930s indicates the presence of pangolins in Europe during the Ice Age, these fossils have been lost, and other researchers doubt their authenticity,” Terhune said. “We now know for sure that pangolins have been in Europe for at least about two million years.”

Modern pangolins are found in Asia and Africa. Often referred to as scaly anteaters, they are somewhat similar to 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 most 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 pangolin living on two continents range from “vulnerable” to “critically endangered.”

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

As the smallest and best-documented fossil pangolin from Europe and the only fossil from the Pleistocene in Europe, the new species revises previous understanding of pangolin evolution and biogeography. Smutsia olteniensisAs the new species is called, it shares many unique traits with other members of the genus Smoutsia, which is currently only found in Africa.

This work was published in Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

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

Fossils reveal the diversity of animal species that roamed Europe two million years ago

more information:
Claire E. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology (2021). doi: 10.1080/02724634.2021.1990075

Presented by the University of Arkansas

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