The smallest pangolin from Europe

The humerus of a new species of pangolin was found in Graunceanu, a famous Pleistocene fossil deposit in Romania, confirming its presence in Europe.

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 is just one bone, but it is a new species of some kind of exotic animal. We are proud of that because the fossil record for pangolins is very scant. This is the smallest pangolin animal ever discovered from Europe and the only fossil of pangolins from the Pleistocene period in Europe.”

humeral pangolin

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

Humerus – or humerus 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, initially discovered due to landslides during the 1960s, have produced fossils of a variety of animal species, including great ground monkey, short-necked giraffe, rhinoceros, and saber-toothed cats, as well as newer pangolin species.

Claire Tarhun

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

“What is particularly exciting is that although some work in the 1930s indicated 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.

Reference: “The smallest anteater (Mammalia, Pholidota) from Europe” by Claire E. December 21, 2021, Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.
doi: 10.1080/02724634.2021.1990075

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 at the Emil Racovita Institute of Speleology in Bucharest.

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