The nearly complete humerus — or upper arm bone — of a pangolin from the paleontological site of Grăunceanu in Romania definitively demonstrates that these animals were present in Europe during the Pleistocene epoch.
Often referred to as scaly anteaters, they look somewhat like the armadillos that roam the southern United States.
Pangolins are also among the most illegally trafficked animals in the world. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the eight species of living pangolins range from Vulnerable to Critically Endangered.
The newly-discovered pangolin fossil belongs a previously unknown species of the genus Smutsia, which is currently found only in Africa.
“Smutsia has previously been thought to be an African genus, with the oldest specimen from South Africa at 5 million years ago and living species found across Africa,” said Dr. Claire Terhune, a researcher at the University of Arkansas, and her colleagues.
“This specimen now demonstrates that Smutsia previously had a far larger biogeographic range.”
The fossilized humerus of Smutsia olteniensis. Image credit: Terhune et al., doi: 10.1080/02724634.2021.1990075.
Named Smutsia olteniensis, the new species lived between about 1.9 and 2.2 million years ago (Pleistocene epoch).
Its nearly complete humerus was found at the site of Grăunceanu in Romania.
“It’s not a fancy fossil. It’s just a single bone, but it is a new species of a kind of a weird animal,” Dr. Terhune said.
“We’re proud of it because the fossil record 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.”
According to the team, 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.
“The site of Grăunceanu has been reconstructed to have consisted of relatively open grasslands and woodlands, which is an unusual habitat for most pangolins,” the paleontologists said.
The team’s paper was published December 21, 2021 in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.
Claire E. Terhune et al. The youngest pangolin (Mammalia, Pholidota) from Europe. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, published online December 21, 2021; doi: 10.1080/02724634.2021.1990075