Bill McShea, also known as the “panda guy,” is a research scientist at the Smithsonian’s Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Va.
The Smithsonian National Zoo’s panda cam maxed out its bandwidth this past week as the saga of the giant panda family unfolded. There was celebration upon the birth of a cub, jubilant surprise at the arrival of a twin, then heartbreak when the smaller cub didn’t make it and suspense over the true father. Despite the public fascination with these animals, certain misconceptions are stubbornly persistent. If you should find yourself discussing the latest panda news, please do not fall for the following myths.
1. Pandas are cuddly, gentle creatures.
Online photographs of grinning people hugging baby pandas may suggest that giant pandas would make perfect pets. But make no mistake: They are bears and built to be aggressive. Their canines and claws are well developed, and the musculature in their limbs and jaws is sufficient to inflict serious damage.
Indeed, they do harm one another, particularly when males are establishing dominance or competing for females. Males in China’s Qinling Mountains are often observed with torn ears and bite wounds from tussling with other males. And in 2007, the first captive-born male reintroduced into the wild died after an apparent fight with other pandas.
Attacks on humans are relatively unusual. In 1984, the National Zoo’s Ling-Ling bit a keeper. Generally keepers do not enter the pandas’ enclosures when the animals are there. They know that you should no more cuddle an adult giant panda than you should an adult black bear.
2. Pandas are incompetent breeders.
The original power couple at the National Zoo, Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling, were a breeding pair for almost 20 years. Hsing-Hsing famously attempted to mate with Ling-Ling’s foot and ear. They ultimately produced five cubs; none survived.
Such records have led to the hypothesis that reproductive incompetence is one factor behind the panda’s endangered status. “They have no libido, no interest in repopulating the species,” Brian Barrett wrote for Gizmodo in a typical rant. However, there is no evidence that giant pandas have any problems breeding in their natural habitat. (Their rarity in the wild has to do with too many people occupying the little remaining bamboo forest.)
In the wild, aggregations of male pandas form along ridge tops in the spring, and a stream of visiting females in heat keeps the mating activity intense. That’s hard to mimic for zoo pandas. Rather, in most zoos one male is isolated from one female until the fateful day of estrus; and when the moment arrives, neither is socialized to know what to do.
Technology can help. U.S. zoos have embraced artificial insemination for their pandas, and all the cubs born in recent years at the National Zoo have been the result of it. Newborn cubs — tiny, hairless, helpless — remain vulnerable. But advances in veterinary medicine and primary care for infants are improving their chances.
3. Pandas are rare in captivity.
Only 50 giant pandas live outside China. That includes the surviving cub at the National Zoo, which is one of only four U.S. zoos holding pandas.
The key phrase, though, is “outside China,” as there are approximately 345 captive pandas in China. Chinese breeding facilities have done a phenomenal job — a visitor to the Chengdu Research Base can see more than 50 pandas in a day. Given that success, the International Union for Conservation of Nature has been able to revise its goal upward from 300 to 500 pandas in captivity. That number will be reached within five years at the current growth rate.
Wild pandas remain endangered — there are only an estimated 1,800 — and there is a critical role for captive giant pandas in spreading a conservation message. But compare giant pandas with Sumatran rhinos, with only nine individuals in captivity worldwide, and the last one in United States about to leave for Indonesia. The worldwide population of captive pandas is healthy and thriving.
4. Pandas are not your average bear.
Since they were first described by Westerners in 1869, giant pandas have been placed in the bear family (Ursidae), the raccoon family (Procyonidae) and in their own unique family (Ailuropodidea), depending on whether researchers were looking at bone structure, behavior or penile characteristics. They share the name “panda” with one other species, the red or lesser panda. Only in the 1980s was genetic analysis able to differentiate the two, with red pandas being placed within the procyonids and giant pandas within the bear family.
Ask zoo visitors what makes pandas unique among bears, and they’re likely to say something about the tiny cubs, black-and-white coloring or bamboo diet. But all bears give birth to altricial (underdeveloped) young. And five species of bears are some combination of black and white, while the remaining species are either all white (polar bears), all black (American black bears) or remarkably variable (brown bears).
Meanwhile, although pandas do go heavy on bamboo, eating as much as 44 pounds a day, they retain the capacity to eat meat in both their tooth structure and gut flora. Chinese villagers report pandas breaking into livestock pens and consuming goats and sheep. In China, we recently photographed a giant panda feeding for several days on the carcass of a takin (a large goat-like ungulate). That places pandas at one end of a spectrum of omnivorous bear species, which eat a combination of plants, insects and meat. Only polar bears are all-meat eaters.
5. Pandas are lazy.
The adult giant pandas you see at the zoo seem like they would be just as comfortable on a lounge chair as on a mountainside. Their top speed appears to just exceed an amble. They spend most of the day chomping bamboo. Contrast this with images of polar bears stalking prey among the ice floes or brown bears fighting along salmon streams. Giant pandas appear to live the life of Riley.
What they lack in speed, though, giant pandas make up in endurance. They feed about 19 hours a day, 365 days a year. They do not go into an extended hibernation like other temperate bears; they do not lie in wait for prey or sleep off a big meal. Because they are unable to build up fat reserves, they must continuously hunt for food. Luckily, their food is usually nearby.
But seasonal movements up and down steep hillsides are the norm in their native habitat. Juveniles disperse from their mothers’ home range, and everyone moves in response to bamboo die-offs after flowering events, with reports of six-mile treks over alpine mountains. Giant pandas are not lazy, just comfortable.