Four subadult Giant pandas climbing in tree

The giant panda’s family tree includes an extinct ancestor that lived well south of the species’ current range. Credit: Eric Baccega/NPL

Genomics

Long-extinct pandas left a living legacy

Giant pandas were once far more widespread — and more genetically diverse — than they are today.

A panda that vanished from Asia thousands of years ago survives in the genome of its modern relatives.

The giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) once thrived as far north as Beijing and as far south as Vietnam, but today the bear lives in only six mountain ranges in central China. To study the effects on the species of its shrinking territory, Gui-Lian Sheng at the China University of Geosciences in Wuhan, Axel Barlow at the University of Potsdam in Germany and their colleagues sequenced nuclear DNA from an approximately 5,000-year-old panda bone found in Yunnan Province, China, which lies well south of the animal’s current habitat.

Analysis indicated that the ancient bone came from a member of a now-vanished group of giant pandas. But DNA analysis also suggested that animals from this extinct lineage interbred with the ancestors of modern pandas millennia ago. The findings imply that giant pandas were more genetically diverse before their range shrank in size.