Meat-eating panda relatives — one with monstrously large teeth — roamed Earth, study says

Today, giant pandas exist in a category all on their own. But a new study indicates that pandas are a part of what was once a flourishing collection of even larger bears.

The research was conducted by paleontologists at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, a part of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, in collaboration with the American Museum of Natural History and was published March 14 in the journal American Museum Novitates.

Studying fossils from North America and east Asia, researchers discovered a new type of bear-like creature with at least four distinct species, according to the study. Known as Huracan, the giant panda relatives roamed Earth as early as 8 million years ago until they died out in the middle of the Pliocene, about 3 million years ago.

Of the four species, one stood out to experts for its size and build, the study said.

Huracan coffeyi, which found their home in North America, had a monstrous skull and giant teeth, researchers said. They described the creature’s teeth as “probably the largest among all known bears, living and extinct.”

The animal’s arm bones indicate that it was likely incredibly fast, and are more similar to the structure of lions and jaguars than to other bears, such as pandas, the study said. Experts think the creature was more adapted to running than “any living bear, the extinct giant short-faced bear, and probably extant lions.”

Unlike today’s pandas, Huracan were “hypercarniverous,” so most of their diet consisted of meat, the paleontologists said. They likely preyed upon now-extinct rhino and camel species.

The discovery indicates that giant pandas, which are highly specialized herbivores, developed from a lineage that was once made up of carnivores, according to the study.

Experts also learned more about two other kinds of creatures — Indarctos and Agriotherium — which share traits with the Huracan and giant pandas.

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