Touchstone Archives: Of Pandas & Men:

Viewers learned everything they could possibly want to know about the creatures. For starters, after some debate, biologists have concluded that giant pandas are, in fact, bears, not, as previously thought, kin to raccoons. As for the distinctive markings, the most popular theory is that these conspicuous markings help the solitary creatures both avoid each other most of the year and spot a potential mate during breeding season.

The Real Reason

I have my own theory about the markings: They make the creatures so cute that people care about what happens to them. Because, let’s face it, evolutionarily speaking, giant pandas are losers.

Unlike their ursine cousins who will eat almost anything, giant pandas–as you probably know–basically eat one thing: bamboo stems and leaves. Okay, two things. (No one is sure why. It’s not for lack of options. Their home range supports other animals, such as the snow leopard, golden monkey, golden langur, and musk deer, none of whom share the giant panda’s “dietary restrictions.”) If that weren’t bad enough, bamboo ranks just ahead of cardboard and Styrofoam on the nutritional scale. To complete the nutritional trifecta, the giant panda is actually a carnivore with a carnivore’s digestive system. So, at best, it’s capable of extracting only 20 percent of the bamboo’s already meager nutritional value.

Then there’s the giant panda’s reproductive strategy. As one conservationist website put it, giant pandas are “notoriously unenthusiastic about breeding.” Anyone living in the Washington area is familiar with the difficulties the National Zoo has had in breeding the animals: a mating season that seems to last 34 minutes, males who are apparently clueless as to how females should be approached, and other problems that make panda pregnancies relatively rare.

And when female pandas do get pregnant, their bamboo diet leads to a very short gestational period and the smallest infants—as measured by their weight relative to their mother’s, a 1,000 to 1 ratio—of all placental mammals. If mom doesn’t accidentally roll over and crush the infant, there’s still the problem of neglect. Half of all panda births are twins. Almost invariably, the mother will choose one infant and completely neglect the other, resulting in its death. That’s why the Wolong Center had to develop what it calls “swap raising,” whereby the twins take turns being with their mother. It’s as if the species is implementing the recommendations of some prehistoric extinction consultant.

For those who take their Darwinism, as Thelonious Monk might have put it, straight, no chaser, the logical response to the plight of the giant panda is “tough.” Evolution is, if nothing else, unsentimental. It rewards adaptability and punishes, in the medium-to-long term, overspecialization. If your diet and habitat disappear—and that has happened countless times in Earth’s history—then you do, too.