Sure, captive pandas seem cute and harmless. But wild pandas are so much more fierce.
Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Googling “are pandas smart or dumb?” provides an astonishing 400,000-plus results, with news organizations and random blogs staunchly in each camp. Part of the confusion, it seems, is due to the differences between captive and wild pandas.
If you’re talking about the captive panda, the bumbling, slow stereotype is pretty accurate. However, the wild panda is vastly different and much more competent at feeding, defending, and reproducing, according to the BBC.
The giant panda's skull is impressively thick, with a sagittal crest that acts as an anchor point for a massive chewing muscle. This anatomy helps the giant panda bite through the hardened sheath of bamboo, and the animal has developed one of the greatest bite forces of any carnivore (and yes, the panda is indeed a carnivore).
The giant panda evolved to eat bamboo, however, developing two physical characteristics—an enlarged radial sesamoid bone or “false-thumb” to hold bamboo as it munches, and a complex suite of gut microbes to help its digestion—to help it digest the seasonally reliable grass.
Pandas are also known for being fairly picky with mates, leading zoologists to show captive pandas “panda porn” in hopes of getting them in the mood. However, despite a a short window for reproduction chances (females are fertile for 24 to 48 hours once a year, usually sometime between February and May) giant pandas in the wild are doing just fine for themselves sexually.
In 1981, zoologist George Schaller first observed real, wild panda sex while he was tracking a female panda called Zhen-Zhen, who was being sought after by two male pandas. "The small male comes near, moaning, and is promptly attacked again, though I only hear growls, roars, and whines like a pack of dogs fighting and see the bamboo shake violently," he wrote in The Giant Pandas of Wolong.
The BBC reports that wild pandas are pretty into threesomes or more, which is a difficult arrangement to recreate at a zoo, and that “in just over three hours, Schaller recorded the large male mating with Zhen-Zhen at least 48 times, roughly once every three minutes. This is way more sex than most humans get in a year.”