The Giant Panda

image104I am an undoubted and avid Giant Panda lover, whether it be how much I secretly want to be able to eat and sleep all day or my desire to preserve such a species so close to extinction, I’m not entirely sure. Therefore, I deemed it only fitting that my first blog post should be about these creatures.
Somewhat surprisingly, the Giant Panda is incredibly well adapted to its environment, namely as a consequence of what I could only imagine to be a slightly monotonous diet of bamboo. One of the most evident of these adaptations is the ‘sixth toe’, actually an extension of the wrist bone of a Giant Panda. This gives the panda extra strength, which enables it to pull up shoots, pull off leaves and grasp bamboo. [1] This is crucial for a Giant Panda as 99% of their diet consists of bamboo shoots and leaves, [2] and thus being able to extract this plant easily is fundamental to their survival.

Pandas belong to the family of bears, the Urisdae family, and have a particularly well adapted jaw and head to again enable huge bamboo consumption, as it is a tough and firm plant. The jaw muscles of a Giant Panda need to be incredibly strong to chew such a plant (think of it as a human chewing toffee all day) and thus the cranial cavity of the giant panda has evolved to accommodate these larger jaw muscles [2], ensuring the survival of the Giant Panda as it allows for the vast consumption of bamboo, their main source of food.

Along a similar theme, the molars of a Giant Panda has evolved to be very large and frictionless, differing the Giant Panda again from the Urisdae family as it is a species which only uses its molars, whereas most other bears uses their canines to hunt and kill their food.

As eating is evidently what the Giant Panda is best adapted to do, the digestive system of a Giant Panda is also adapted to their favourite food, bamboo. The oesophagus of a Giant Panda has a tough lining to prevent tears, and the stomach is very strong and muscular as bamboo is a relatively hard food to digest, due to amount of cellulose it contains. For the same reason, unlike the rest of the Urisdae family the Giant Panda has a short intestine and a larger colon, as very little water is consumed by a panda each day and a very small amount of waste compared to the amount of food consumed.

Part of a Giant Panda’s undoubted charm is their slightly stocky appearance compared to most bears. Their legs have become more muscular and strengthened overtime, due to climbing trees for their average 20-40 pounds of bamboo a day [2]. As a result of this huge consumption of bamboo, Giant Pandas do not appear fragile, and actually weigh around 250 to 220 pounds [2] with their legs having to carry all this weight over long distances and up trees, for between 10-16 hours a day [2]. This is required to maintain the nutrition levels which are needed for the survival of pandas.

Consequently, while I can’t say my initial love of pandas came from their evolutionary features and not their ‘cute’ yet formidable appearance, it has certainly widened my interest and made them an even more fascinating creature – and yes, one I truly admire for their wholehearted commitment to bamboo.

1.    https://bioweb.uwlax.edu/bio203/s2007/barger_rach/adaptations.htm

2.     http://astridsecologyproject.weebly.com/pandas-physical-and-behavioral-adaptations.html

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