How could anyone not be charmed by a Giant Panda? The black-and-white bears are a national treasure of China, whose bamboo forests are their natural habitat, and universally recognized as the epitome of cute: A panda is nothing more or less than a chubby, fluffy ball of gentleness, and if we didn’t know they were a real animal from an identifiable part of the world, we would assume they came from the same place where rainbows and unicorns are made. In ancient China, warring armies even used to raise flags emblazoned with images of pandas when they wanted to stop fighting and discuss their problems peacefully.
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It seems, however, that Mother Nature may have given the Giant Panda its heartwarming appearance as a consolation prize to partly make up for all the other traits that make the panda kind of an evolutionary failure. The Giant Panda is indeed a peaceful creature, but that is because it simply does not have the energy not to be. Unlike other bears, which are omnivorous, the panda’s diet consists solely of bamboo. A single panda requires an area of about four square kilometers of bamboo to have a sufficient supply of food, and it must spend 14 to 16 hours of each day eating that food in order to survive. The panda has to spend so much of its time eating because it has a poor digestive system. The panda only uses about 30% of the nutrients from its diet; by comparison, other herbivores such as deer use about 80%.
The panda’s diet does give it one dubious talent: Pooping. Because most of what it eats passes through the panda’s system undigested, an adult panda produces an astonishing amount of “number two” – as much as 62 kilograms per day. The Giant Panda’s inability to use its food efficiently also prevents it from hibernating; the panda simply cannot eat enough to build up the fat reserves necessary to allow it to slumber through the winter like a “normal” bear.
The diet also is responsible, some scientists believe, for the panda’s unusual reproductive pattern. Female pandas ovulate just one a year and are only fertile for two or three days. Because pandas must individually maintain a large area of the bamboo forest for their own food needs, encounters between pandas in the wild are relatively rare, and that includes opportunities for mating. If mating is successful, gestation takes from four to eight months; the wide time range is due to the female panda’s body delaying implantation of the fertilized egg until there is enough nutrition to support it. Then once the panda cub is born, it has a fifty-fifty chance of surviving to adulthood; panda cubs are easy prey for a number of predators, but more often than not are killed by being accidentally crushed by their own mothers.
While the Giant Panda has been seriously threatened by human activity such as poaching – which is treated as a heinous crime in China, punishable by a long prison sentence or even the death penalty – and destruction of its natural habitat, the panda’s characteristics that naturally seem to work against its survival have led some scientists to conclude it is a “remnant species”: One that is naturally becoming extinct on its own. In that sense, the fact that pandas are just so darned adorable may be a clever evolutionary advantage – unable to survive in the wild, the Giant Panda is equipped with a look and a personality that has proved irresistible to the one species with the ability to overcome nature for the panda’s ultimate benefit.
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