Saturday, 17 August 2013

More about Edinburgh's Giant Pandas

I saw someone looked like him
eating a baguette in a pub
Humans seem to find pandas attractive because of their habit of sitting upright, with their hind legs in front of them, eating bamboo which they hold in their paws with the help of a modified bone that acts like a thumb. The round face and warm fur coat also help raise their attractiveness.

The news that one of the Giant Pandas rented to Edinburgh Zoo might be pregnant raised a flurry of interest recently. They are big, cute and endangered. Unfortunately for the romantics who assign human motives to animals, if Tian Tian is pregnant it will be the result of artificial insemination (the pandas have separate bedrooms... err enclosures and Tian Tian “showed signs that were not conducive to mating- yes they get headaches too!).

The zoo already strictly regulates panda viewing while trying to avoid the Kit-Kat panda syndrome. If a cub arrives the resulting boost in visitors might make it necessary to register your child at conception to ensure they can see a giant panda. However September when the Festival is over and visitor numbers drop would be a good time to visit.

Where did the panda get its name?

Nobody is sure why they are called Pandas, though in the UK they gave their name to a type of pedestrian crossing and the old fashioned black and white police car. One possibility is the Nepalese word Ponya which may refer to their “thumb”. Chinese records generally refer to the panda as a some form of bear.

Panda Facts

The Giant Panda is sometimes considered to be a living Fossil, like the Coelocanth and its status as an endangered species reliant on conservation to survive strengthens that impression. The panda is a bear and its nearest relative is the South American spectacles bear. The commonest species of Giant Panda is black and white (ebony and ivory) though on subspecies is brown and white, which may be good camouflage in its native environment, which consists of snow and rocks.

The panda largely eats bamboo which it holds using is “thumb” and since each species of bamboo dies off for the winter at different times it needs to be able to access at least two of the 25 species it eats. It eats 20-30 pounds of bamboo a day, needing to eat this much because it still has the digestive system of a carnivore and gets little value from the bamboo it eats. As result it produces vast amounts of fertiliser ( allowing more bamboo to grow), though it seems Edinburgh Zoo does not yet bag and sell it to souvenir hunters or gardeners. Since its food does not give it a lot of energy the panda avoids unenecessary activity and tends to be a solitary animal. It also avoids areas with steep slopes. It is large because a large body means a low surface area to volume ratio and that in turn allows it to have a less active metabolism that allows it to survive on bamboo, and its round face is the result of its powerful jaws needed to crush the bamboo. It will also eat meat, fish and eggs when these are available.

Pandas are solitary and adults have their own terittory while females, like human females, do not tolerate other females on their territory. After mating the male leaves the female to raise the cubs alone. This is another trait shared with humans. Although generally docile the panda has been known to attack humans though this may be a result of irritation not aggression.

Pandas and humans.

They are slimmer in the wild
Pandas used to be considered rare and noble creatures but were rarely considered to have medical uses (unlike the rhinoceros) though its urine was recommended for dissolving accidentally swallowed needles and tea fertilised by panda dung, as well as being the most expensive in the West has been touted as healthy, if only by those selling it. There are tantalising accounts in Chinese records of animals that might be pandas but no pictures of pandas before the 20th century.

The first live Panda was seen in the West in 1916 and Theodore Roosevelt Jr was the first Westerner to shoot one in the 1920s with the first live Panda reaching London in 1938.

The Wrap

The Panda is an interesting animal and its thumb and habit of sitting upright while eating endear it to humans. Its range has shrunk from a large part of SE Asia to a few mountain regions in China, a lot of this being the result of human destruction of its hbitat for farming, forestry and other purposes. As would humans they lose a lot of interest in mating once in captivity, though they seem to breed well in the wild. Estimates of the wild panda population have risen recently and it seems that while still endangered they are less in danger than before.

Edinburgh Zoo is celebrating its centenary year in 2013 and a Panda cub would be a nice addition to the year. It is only a short drive from the Bed and Breakfast, and as I said above, it is perhaps best visited in the off-season. Remember there are more than Pandas there and try to stay for the Penguin Parade.

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