Breaking Down Science, Step by Step

Wow, aren't Pandas useless creatures ? They can barely survive in their natural habitat, on a barely nutritious food source, and can barely breed. So why not let them go extinct ? Because those statements are only true if you assume their natural habitat is in a Zoo.

We've tried to bring many species back from the brink of extinction. 25 years ago, there were only 50 Green Turtles nesting in Florida, but by the last count there are now 10,000. The Humpback whale, once hunted to near extinction, now flourishes. There have been conservation reserves set out, well publicised captive breeding programs, and the Panda is still endangered.


The Panda's like a wildlife equivalent of a depressed guy living on welfare. They're fat, they sit around all day. It always seems that other people are working harder to keep them alive than they are. It's not surprising people are getting frustrated at the fat slob. Bamboo eating isn't a marketable skill in this economy, stop complaining about your lost habitat and learn how to touch-type you lazy bastard !

It has become so easy to blame the Panda. It only eats bamboo, it only breeds for a very small part of the year, if they get slightly stressed out , they might reject their newborn pups. WHY DO YOU HAVE TO MAKE IT SO DIFFICULT PANDA !? MR HUMPBACK WHALE DID FINE, AND IT DIDN'T EVEN HAVE A CAPTIVE BREEDING PROGRAM ! DO YOU WANT TO BE EXTINCT? IS THAT WHAT YOU WANT !?

People have begun to believe that there is something wrong with the Panda, like the entire species "wants" to become extinct. But that entire story we tell ourselves about the Panda is comforting lie, designed to almost perfectly exonerate ourselves of blame. As Reddit Scientist 99Trumpets points out in his rant :


In most animal species, the female is only receptive for a few days a year. This is the NORM, not the exception, and it is humans that are by far the weird ones. In most species, there is a defined breeding season, females usually cycle only once, maybe twice, before becoming pregnant, do not cycle year round, are only receptive when ovulating and typically become pregnant on the day of ovulation. For example: elephants are receptive a grand total of 4 days a year (4 ovulatory days x 4 cycles per year), the birds I did my PhD on for exactly 2 days (and there are millions of those birds and they breed perfectly well), grizzly bears usually 1-2 day, black bears and sun bears too.


All the "problems" people hear about with panda breeding are problems of the captive environment and true of thousands of other wild species as well; it's just that pandas get media attention when cubs die and other species don't. Sun bears won't breed in captivity, sloth bears won't breed in captivity, leafy sea dragons won't breed in captivity, Hawaiian honeycreepers won't breed in captivity, on and on. Lots and lots of wild animals won't breed in captivity.

Pandas breed just fine in the wild. Wild female pandas produce healthy, living cubs like clockwork every two years for their entire reproductive careers (typically over a decade).

Pandas also do just fine on their diet of bamboo, since that question always comes up too. They have evolved many specializations for bamboo eating, including changes in their taste receptors, development of symbiosis with lignin-digesting gut bacteria (this is a new discovery), and an ingenious anatomical adaptation (a "thumb" made from a wrist bone) that is such a good example of evolutionary novelty that Stephen Jay Gould titled an entire book about it, The Panda's Thumb. They represent a branch of the ursid family that is in the middle of evolving some incredible adaptations (similar to the maned wolf, a canid that's also gone mostly herbivorous, rather like the panda). Far from being an evolutionary dead end, they are an incredible example of evolutionary innovation. Who knows what they might have evolved into if we hadn't ruined their home and destroyed what for millions of years had been a very reliable and abundant food source.


Population wise, pandas did just fine on their own too (this question also always comes up) before humans started destroying their habitat. The historical range of pandas was massive and included a gigantic swath of Asia covering thousands of miles. Genetic analyses indicate the panda population was once very large, only collapsed very recently and collapsed in 2 waves whose timing exactly corresponds to habitat destruction: the first when agriculture became widespread in China and the second corresponding to the recent deforestation of the last mountain bamboo refuges.


The panda is in trouble entirely because of humans. Honestly I think people like to repeat the "evolutionary dead end" myth to make themselves feel better: "Oh, they're pretty much supposed to go extinct, so it's not our fault." They're not "supposed" to go extinct, they were never a "dead end," and it is ENTIRELY our fault.


For more details, the full rant can be read here

Further Reading……

Image Credits

Atlanta Zoo Panda by Rob

Taiwan Pandas after earthquake by Miniwiki

Ling Ling at Ueno Zoo by Claire Houck

Giant Panda Tai Shan by Fernando Revilla

Map of Panda range- Animal

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