KEY POINTS

  • Researchers named the new species as the Smutsia olteniensis
  • The fossil is about 1.9 to 2.2 million years old
  • It shares some characteristics with members of the Smutsia genus currently living in Africa

Researchers have discovered a new pangolin species, thanks to fossil remains found in Romania. It is said to be the youngest pangolin fossil from Europe.

Pangolin fossil record is "sparse," according to authors of a study describing the find, which was published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. Although pangolins are believed to have existed in Europe during the early Pleistocene, the creatures disappeared from the continent's fossil record during the middle Miocene, when they possibly moved toward the more tropical and sub-tropical regions of the planet.

Furthermore, some researchers also doubted the validity of the fossils suggesting pangolins' presence in Europe, Claire Terhune of the University of Arkansas, one of the authors of the paper, said in the news release from the university.

Now the researchers' work confirms the presence of pangolins in Europe, thanks to a humerus bone found in Grăunceanu, Romania. The sites in the area were discovered because of landslides in the 1960s. Since then, the sites have revealed fossils of various species.

"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," Terhune said in the university news release. "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."

The fossil is about 1.9 to 2.2 million years old, as per the university. The researchers named it the Smutsia olteniensis as it shares some characteristics with members of the Smutsia genus currently living in Africa.

But according to the researchers, it has unique traits and that justify it as a new species, including a "longer and narrower entepicondyle, an enlarged supinator crest, and an enlarged greater tubercle."

"This specimen definitively demonstrates that pangolins were present in Europe during the Pleistocene," the researchers wrote. "This specimen now demonstrates that Smutsia previously had a far larger biogeographic range. Finally, Grăunceanu has been reconstructed to have consisted of relatively open grasslands and woodlands, which is an unusual habitat for most pangolins."

Also called "scaly anteaters" because of their diet and signature armor of scales, pangolins are considered to be the "most trafficked mammal in the world," with high demands in Asia, Africa and even the U.S.

Today, there are eight species of pangolins in Africa and Asia that range in conservation status from "Vulnerable" to "Critically Endangered."

China has removed pangolin parts from its list of traditional medicines -- the animal is thought by some scientists to be the possible host of the novel coronavirus Representational image Photo: AFP / Isaac Kasamani