Friday, 23 May 2014 | MYT 9:05 PM

GIANT PANDA! Four questions about the world's favourite animal answered!

As we warmly welcome furry expats, Feng Yi and Fu Wa, to Malaysia, here are long-winded answers to four maddening questions about giant pandas to help you better understand these enigmatic cuties.

What exactly is the giant panda?

Although its common Chinese name xiong mao literally translates as "bear cat" and it bears passing resemblance to Doraemon, the giant panda – its scientific name, Ailuropoda melanoleuca, means "black-and-white cat-foot" – is not a cat. But what kind of animal it actually is has baffled scientists for the better part of the past century.

When Europeans first saw and described the monochromatic animal in the late 19th century, they thought it resembled a bear and called it a bear. But when scientists took a closer look at the giant panda’s bones and habits in the 1960s, they found it had both bear and raccoon traits. Left somewhat confused, they subsequently left it in the raccoon family, Procyonidae.

Then, in 1985, during the early days of DNA mapping, scientists searched the giant panda’s DNA for more clues. Their findings earned it a return to the Ursidae family – in other words, yes, it’s a bear.

Is it a cat? Is it a raccoon? Or is it a bear? Definitely no to cat and raccoon but not exactly like other bears, the giant panda broke away from an extinct line of proto-bears two to three million years ago to evolve into the peculiar black and white cutie we love today. 

However, the panda’s "bear" credentials remain shaky, as some scientists think it should be grouped in a family all of its own. But why is it so hard to place this lovable buffoon of the animal kingdom in the taxonomic scheme of things? Well, it’s mostly the panda’s fault.

Although it evolved from a line of extinct proto-bear ancestors two to three million years ago, and retains many bear characteristics, the giant panda has strayed so far from its bear relatives and behaves more like an inefficient cow crossed with a bit of raccoon.

Most baffling of all is the giant panda’s diet. Most bears are omnivores, meaning they eat plant and animal – and, more recently, human junk food. But the panda is largely vegetarian, famed for its 99% bamboo diet – the other 1% is the rare fruit or bird carcass it comes across on the forest floor. However, despite their vegetarianism, giant pandas are badly designed for it.

To be a successful herbivore, it’s best to have a digestive tract that can break down the tough cellulose of plants – cows do this with their multiple stomachs. But the giant panda’s gut – inherited from its carnivorous ancestors – only manages to digest 20% to 30% of the bamboo it eats. This is why pandas eat non-stop, and also poo non-stop – adults defecate up to 40 times a day, sometimes even during their sleep.

From panda poo to world’s most expensive tea: In 2012, Chinese entrepreneur An Yanshi (with the teacup on his head) launched a brand of tea grown with panda poo fertiliser, claiming it has anti-cancer properties. He priced it at 2,220 yuan (RM11,350) for a bag of 50g – making it the most expensive tea in the world. Later, experts poo-ed over his tea’s anti-cancer claims and connoisseurs commented it tasted of hype. 

Another non-bear trait: giant pandas don’t go into torpor (similar to but not the same as hibernation) in winter. They’re so bad at extracting nutrients from their bamboo diet that they can’t accumulate enough fat for the long sleep. They have a pseudo-thumb (actually an enlarged wrist bone) that enables them to grasp their favourite food. They also have more premolar and molar teeth to help them chew through all that bamboo.

What emerges from these observations is that the giant panda is a highly niche species, much like the giant sloth of South America and the kakapo of New Zealand. Facing no competition for its abundant food source, and buffered by its unchanging habitat for millions of years, the giant panda evolved to fit perfectly into its own little nook in the woods – some would say an evolutionary dead-end. And because of that: it is what it is.

Red panda: Once thought to belong to the same animal family as the giant panda because it shares the latter’s love of bamboo and also owns a pseudo-thumb. However, after DNA comparison, the red panda is found to be more closely related to the raccoon than the giant panda. Like the giant panda, it's also endangered.

Why are pandas so cute?

Believe it or not, there’s a plausible scientific explanation for why giant pandas –especially the babies – make us go “Awww, they’re so adorable!” Austrian zoologist Konrad Lorenz put forth in 1949 his theory that typical baby traits – big eyes, oversized heads, rotund bodies, and small noses – evoke the protective parental instinct in adults.

More recent research on the "cute" factor fleshes out Lorenz’s theory and deems it as a clever quirk of human evolution. No matter how noisy and stinky babies actually are, their "cuteness" takes advantage of adults’ genetically imprinted weakness for "cute" things, which is why babies often get their way. In the long run, this ensures the survival of the species.

Going by this "cute" evolutionary logic, anything that exhibits those same traits as a human baby will evoke the "cute" response. This response explains why we are helpless against the barrage of puppy and kitten videos on YouTube – not to mention this video of four juvenile pandas playing on a slide that went viral last year. 

It's easy to see why giant pandas – with their big eye-spots (that some experts think is an evolutionary cosmetic makeover to make them appear more aggressive than they actually are – much like teenage girls with too much eyeliner), oversized heads (those chubby cheeks are actually massive jaw muscles to help pandas chew), rotund bodies (a consequence of their bamboo diet), and stubby noses – make us feel gooey when we look at them.

This instinctive response to "cute" is also the main reason why the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) adopted the giant panda as its logo. According to the organisation’s website, inspiration for the logo came from Chi Chi, a giant panda that was brought to London Zoo in 1961 and became a public sensation. Requiring a lovable and easily recognisable image to help champion the cause, the giant panda’s high "cute" quotient made it an obvious choice.

Sir Peter Scott, who drew the first WWF logo in 1961 and was one of WWF’s founders, said: “We wanted an animal that is beautiful, endangered, and loved by many people in the world for its appealing qualities. We also wanted an animal that had an impact in black and white to save money on printing costs.”

Fake panda: A new trend emerged earlier this year in China as ‘panda dogs’ hit the market and sold out due to overwhelming demand. They’re not actual pandas, but chows groomed to look like pandas – apparently, the panda look needs retouching after six weeks. 

It also explains why some zoos are willing to make a glaring exception in their budgets for giant pandas. A New York Times article from 2006 stated that a pair on loan to the Atlanta Zoo cost US$2mil per year – just for "renting" the animals – with an additional US$600,000 for each cub born.

That figure didn’t include their bamboo – which has to be harvested and delivered fresh daily – nor the additional millions spent on building enclosures, hiring staff, conducting research, setting up "panda cams" and maintaining breeding programmes. The article summed up the panda double standard rather succinctly: “A panda’s upkeep costs five times more than that of the next most expensive animal, an elephant.”

Not so cute: Compared to polar bears or black bears, which have a predatory nature, pandas rank as one of the more docile bears. But they do sometimes exhibit aggressive and violent behaviour.

Why are pandas black and white?

From Tibet comes a folktale that explains how giant pandas got their black and white markings. A long time ago, all pandas were white. Then came the fateful day when a girl was killed when she tried to protect a giant panda from a leopard attack. The giant pandas were very upset about this and decided to attend the girl’s funeral wearing black armbands. Their sorrow got the better of them, however.

As they cried, their tears made the black dye on the armbands run. When they wiped their eyes, the dye smeared their eyes. When they rubbed their nose and ears, the dye smeared there too. Then they hugged each other and more smearing happened. To honour the girl’s bravery and selfless sacrifice, however, the pandas decided to retain their markings.

Remember, when you're making a giant panda cake, you'll need black and white frosting. :-D

It also makes the giant panda one of the easier exotic animals to recognise – and draw. But while we can be sure that the giant panda didn’t evolve its markings for aesthetic reasons, we also don't really know why they’re so black and white.

One very plausible reason for their colouration is camouflage. Giant pandas in the wild live close to their beloved food, which grow in tall, dense groves. Scientists think the animal’s markings break its silhouette and help it blend into the mottled shadows of the bamboo forest. The camouflage works even better in a snowy landscape.

Meanwhile, other scientists believe the markings assist pandas in regulating their body temperature, and maybe even help individual pandas – who live solitary lives in the wild – avoid each other. Curiously, a panda’s skin is black under the black fur, and pink under the white fur. Baby pandas don’t develop the markings until a month after they’re born.

Not all pandas are black and white. Last year, photos and videos of Qizai, a giant panda found in the Qinling mountains, stunned panda lovers all over the world with his tan-and-brown coat. Experts believe that Qizai’s unique colouration is due to a combination of genetic mutation and local diet. Other pandas from Qizai’s clan have displayed occasional brown patches but Qizai is one of a kind.

Why is the giant panda so rare?

In July last year, Atlanta Zoo’s Lun Lun made international headlines when she delivered a pair of twins. Though twin births are not uncommon among pandas, for panda-crazy humans, the birth of every little pink fur-less panda baby (that’s about the size of a block of butter) is always a miracle.

It’s a miracle because giant pandas have the odds stacked against their continued existence. Habitat destruction, poaching and low birth rates have been cited as the main reasons why its numbers are so low – an estimated 1,600 in the wild and 240 in captivity.

While solutions to habitat destruction and poaching remain mired in China’s bureaucracy and politics, wildlife conservationists are left with little choice but to pump up panda numbers by turning female pandas into baby factories – if only it were that easy.

Since the establishment of Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding – the world’s main centre for captive breeding of giant pandas – in Sichuan, China, in 1987, many things have come to light about panda reproduction. And the revelations are embarrassing: not only are pandas hopeless at making babies, they can be deeply clueless about sex.

For starters, female pandas, after achieving sexual maturity at five years old, only come into heat for about 72 hours once a year, during which there’s only between 12 to 24 hours period of mating that has the potential to induce pregnancy. For wild pandas, this minuscule keyhole of opportunity becomes even smaller when you consider the fact they live alone and have to trek beyond their territory to find suitable mates – that's if they even bother to take break from their daily bamboo munching marathon.

Panda sex deteriorates in captivity, where up to 60% of captive pandas end up with no sexual inclinations whatsoever. Female giant pandas are understandably fussy about their mates – most mammals are. At Chiangmai Zoo in 2007, Lin Hui apparently rejected her intended mate Chuang Chuang because of his weight, which prompted his keepers to put him on a diet in order to make him more attractive to the only other panda in Thailand.

Is that what it's like? This grossly inaccurate re-enactment gives little insight into the sex lives of giant pandas. But it's funny.

Males, on the other hand, can be totally oblivious about the birds and the bees. At the National Zoo in Washington D.C, Mei Xiang – a veritable sexpot in the panda world, with her shameless displays of masturbation, pheromone-smearing, assuming the "pancake" position and high-pitched chirping – failed to excite Tian Tian, who merely looked at her “like a man who has just opened a large box from Ikea and has no idea what to do next” according to a New Yorker article.

Male giant pandas also have an anatomical problem when it comes to sex. They have a disproportionately small penis, measuring 3cm long – that strangely points to the rear. This, plus the fact that their testicles – curiously, panda gonads are the biggest among bears – don’t descend until they turn three, can make matchmaking efforts rather awkward. Mei Lan, who was born in Atlanta zoo, was originally determined to be female, but when she was sent to China in 2011 to mate with a male, it turned out that the dame was a dude all along.

Panda-phrodisiac? This video of Josh Groban on the Jimmy Kimmel Show from 2007 encouraging giant pandas to mate through music is a sign that perhaps panda sex has reached the point of saturation. Yet we're still not getting enough.

Zoos have reportedly resorted to panda porn, Viagra and other desperate methods to help giant pandas get it on. But panda sex magic in captivity often occurs in the lab. Artificial insemination remains the most successful method to get female pandas pregnant. The method has not gone uncriticised, however, with some saying that the small gene pool of captive pandas may lead to inbreeding. Still, it’s better than having no panda.

The single biggest threat to the giant panda’s future is human destruction of their habitat. Wildlife researchers estimate that if we don’t change our current stripping of trees from the face of the earth, the remaining panda habitat will be halved by 2080, if not sooner. They’ve already lost more than 80% of their original habitat over the past century. And yet the paradox is that humans are also the giant panda’s single most viable chance for survival. Hopefully, they will remain "cute" to us for a long time to come.

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle , Lifestyle , Features , Nature , Wildlife , Animals , giant panda , facts , trivia , questions , answers , humour


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