There is not much about giant pandas that is black and white. In a lunchtime talk to Year 8 scholars, Dr Henry Nicholls, Biology teacher and author of The Way of the Panda, debunked the widespread narrative that pandas are at an evolutionary dead-end.
There are plenty of curious aspects of panda biology: pandas are carnivores yet consume no meat; in order to survive on a plant-based diet, they must eat for around 14 hours and munch through over 10kg of bamboo a day; they have a bite force of 2000N, about the same as that of a lion (and Dr Nicholls showed the gruesome injuries obtained by those foolish enough to climb into a panda enclosure); male pandas do handstands to urinate, leaving an elevated scent mark that communicates an abundance of information about his status; and female pandas undergo just one reproductive cycle a year, a window of fertility that typically lasts less than two days.
By human standards, these are strange quirks indeed, but it would be wrong to write the panda off as a zoological failure. We know, from both fossil evidence and by comparing the genetic makeup of all eight extant bear species, that the panda is an evolutionary success story, a species that has been around in roughly its current form for some 20 million years. This is significantly longer than modern humans, which emerged a mere 200,000 years ago.
The fascinating biology of pandas, however, is often eclipsed by the extraordinary position that this bear now occupies in global culture. Since the formal scientific discovery of the species in 1869, the giant panda has risen to become a powerful symbol, synonymous with both China and the global conservation movement. China is strategic in its deployment of its national treasure, sending a breeding pair to carefully chosen zoos in exchange for around $1 million a year. At the end of the loan – usually lasting a minimum of ten years, the pandas are recalled to China, as will happen in early December with Yang Guang and Tian Tian, the Edinburgh pandas that have been resident in Scotland’s capital since 2011. Once they have left, there will no longer be any pandas in the UK, a situation that will only change when China’s president Xi Jinping gives the green light.