Written by: on March 15, 2021 @ 8:00 am

Join High touch High Tech in celebrating
Giant Panda Day
March 16th!

Image Source: Pixabay.com
Giant Panda

Even the toughest among us cannot resist a little tiny internal “awwwww” when we happen upon a viral video of rotund Giant Panda babies bombarding their caretaker with their squishy, playful bodies.  How about when one falls off something in a goofy, bamboo-induced haze?  If you are one of those folks for whom even these panda delights fail to amuse, perhaps it might pique your interest to know that pandas are also absolute evolutionary freaks.  There are few animals on earth that can match the Giant Panda for sheer evolutionary mystery.  Until the 1980’s we did not even understand what they were, taxonomically. And only in 2019 did we figure out the secret of how a biological carnivore managed to subsist on an almost entirely vegan diet.  Pandas are more than just cute little bamboo-chomping doofuses, they are a testament to the relentless drive to adapt and survive that unites all of life on a level that is way more than skin deep.

Image Source: Pixabay.com
Red Panda

Since pandas were made known to modern biological science in the 1860’s, the debate raged over if the soon-to-be-world-famous fuzzball was a bear, a relative of a racoon, or its own branch entirely.  Compounding the mystery is the fact that internally, as far as muscles, teeth, and organs, a panda is almost exactly like a bear.  Yet in diet and lifestyle, it resembles another highly adorable mammal of the Southwestern Chinese bamboo forests, the Red Panda, which is more closely related to a skunk.  The Giant Panda and the Red Panda both have elongated wrist bones called “pseudothumbs” that allow them to grip and eat their main meal, bamboo.  Which they do, constantly, to the tune of 20 to 40 pounds a day for a Giant Panda!

Image Source: Pixabay.com
South American Spectacled Bear

If Giant Pandas are bears, which are carnivorous, how is it that they learned to survive almost exclusively on plants?  If they are not bears, how is it that their internal organs are the exact same as bears, without any of the extra stomachs, enzymes, and digestive tricks that allow herbivorous animals to survive on tough, cellulose-based food?  What even IS this freaky little fuzzball?  Thanks to genetic sequencing, some helpful fossils, and some VERY devoted biologists, in 2019 the entire picture began to come together.  It turns out that genetically, pandas are bears.  Their closest living relative is the South American Spectacled Bear, which is itself a very ancient form of bear; it is theorized that pandas are the oldest living branch of the Ursine family tree. 

The fossil record also shows that there were possibly some species of prehistoric panda ancestors that were at least somewhat adjusted to eating plants, with some fossil bear teeth displaying the similar cusps and folds to what a Giant Panda uses to grind up its non-stop daily bamboo feast.  So Giant Pandas are bears… but how do they eat all that low-nutrient cellulose, almost exclusively, and survive?  After years of careful GPS tracking and lots of analyzing poop, researchers discovered the Giant Panda, like any experienced vegan, knows very well how to survive on plants.  It turns out the maybe-not-so-doofy-after-all Giant Panda eats seasonally, and in their seasonal eating is enough protein to sustain your average WOLF!  At one time of year, Giant Pandas eat the nutritious shoots of lower-elevation bamboo, then switch to its leaves until, at the higher elevations, another type of high-nutrient bamboo shoot becomes available.  Giant Pandas are so specialized to eating bamboo that they know it on a molecular level and go through a series of rotations across a year that ensure they get exactly the nutrients they need.  So, don’t be fooled by the cute face and sleepy eyes, pandas are geniuses!  Not only can they survive on a nearly impossible diet, but they have also convinced us humans to feed and protect them, too!

The giant panda’s distinct black-and-white markings have two functions: camouflage and communication.  Most of the panda – its face, neck, belly, rump – is white to help it hide in snowy habitats. The arms and legs are black, helping it to hide in shade. So, for this week’s at-home experiment we are building our very own Scavenger Hunt Binoculars. Maybe you’ll even be able to find one of those tricksy giant pandas on your search! Check out the lesson plan & supply list here!

Lesson Plan: https://sciencemadefun.net/downloads/scavenger_hunt.pdf

Video: https://youtu.be/Rwuq8SPwi5Y

Sources:
More on the evolutionary mystery of panda bears:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G2DbShys9ww

2019 discoveries on Giant Panda diet:
https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2014/07/how-pandas-survive-their-bamboo-only-diet

Bonus adorable baby panda video – because you earned it:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I-ovzUNno7g

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