Giant pandas are cute and harmless, with an amusing clown-like habit of sneezing. But their insistence on eating bamboo is dumb, they are rubbish at sex and therefore deserve to go extinct. Except, of course, those proficient in the martial art of Kung Fu.
They are cute, for sure. But don’t go in for a cuddle; pandas can deliver one heck of a bite. Eating bamboo is a blinding evolutionary strategy. They have an intense and very productive sex drive. They do not deserve to go extinct.
This division between captive and wild pandas is important. Because the truth about pandas depends on which kind of panda you’re talking about. If it’s the captive panda you are interested in, then the fluffy, sneezing, clownish, reproductively inept stereotype stands. But if it’s the truth about wild pandas you’re after then you need to shut down the pandacam, take a deep breath and purge your mind of everything you think you know about giant pandas. Most of it is wrong.
There is a lot of confusion about giant pandas, possibly more than any other species alive. This is because of the absolutely massive symbolic, political and economic baggage is heaped on captive pandas, a burden that far outweighs what we really know about this species in the wild.
What is undeniably true is that pandas are striking animals. In 1966, zoologist Desmond Morris put forward 20 factors to explain the human obsession with pandas and about half of them were to do with appearance (flat face, large eyes, soft appearance, rounded outline, contrasting colours and so on). But appearances can be deceptive and it would be a mistake to get too close to a wild panda.
Even in captivity, where pandas are used to being cooed over by humans, they can be dangerous. In 2006, a drunken 28-year-old man called Mr Zhang clambered into the panda enclosure at Beijing Zoo and tried to pet the internee. He’d been showing off to his companion, but all he had to show for his exploits was a right calf savaged beyond recognition. There are photos here, but they are very, very ugly. You’ve been warned.
Such injuries are possible because of the giant panda’s incredibly chunky skull and Mohican-like sagittal crest. This is the anchor point for a massive chewing muscle that can deliver one of the highest bite forces of any carnivore. The panda needs such an impressive bite if it is to crack its way into the tough sheath of a bamboo stem. The panda also boasts an enlarged radial sesamoid bone or “false-thumb” (to get a grip as it munches), a complex suite of gut microbes (to facilitate digestion) and a readiness to spend more than half its life collecting, preparing and eating bamboo. With adaptations like these, the giant panda has performed a remarkable evolutionary volte face, a carnivore that has found a way to chill on a food source that is pretty dependable from one season to the next. Even better, unlike the prey of most carnivores, bamboo is not in the habit of running away.
But it is on the subject of sex where the reputation of captive pandas is at greatest odds with the reality in the wild. Giant pandas have peculiar reproductive cycle, with adult females becoming fertile just once a year for less than two days. With such an unusual arrangement, it is inevitable that pandas struggle to breed in captivity and humans often intervene, imagining that “panda porn” might spark some randiness or resorting to rectal probes to trigger an ejaculation. But to smirk at the diminutive size of the male panda’s winkie, to mock the female panda for being frigid and to propose the species only has itself to blame for its endangered status is nothing short of biological ignorance.
We humans have only been studying giant pandas in the wild since 1980 and we still have so much to learn. But from what we can tell, pandas do sex very, very differently in the wild. It was the legendary zoologist George Schaller who made some of the first observations of real, wild panda sex. In 1981, he’d been tracking a female called Zhen-Zhen, as were a two male pandas – one large, one small. “The small male comes near, moaning, and is promptly attacked again, though I only hear growls, roars, and whines like a pack of dogs fighting and see the bamboo shake violently,” he wrote in The Giant Pandas of Wolong. It turns out that threesomes or more-somes are pretty standard for giant pandas in the wild, an arrangement that would be hard to replicate in any zoo. In just over three hours, Schaller recorded the large male mating with Zhen-Zhen at least 48 times, that’s roughly once every three minutes. This is way more sex than most humans get in a year.
This intensity and frequency of sexual congress may account for the observation that pandas are so much more productive in the wild than they are in captivity. A long-term study of radiocollared pandas in the Qingling Mountains in Shaanxi Province revealed that females reliably give birth every other year and 60% of cubs survive to see in their first birthday. “On the basis of its reproductive potential, the giant panda therefore remains an evolutionary successful species,” wrote zoologist Pan Wenshi and his colleagues in 2004.
If you are still clinging to the panda-bad-sex stereotype, there is one more truth about pandas that you need to digest. This species – in one shape or form – has been around for some 20 million years. This, boys and girls, is the definition of good at sex.
This article was first published appeared on BBC Earth in 2015.