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From Richard Lydekker’s Royal Natural History: Mammals (1894) :

A large number of the mammals from the highlands of Tibet belong to types quite unlike those found in any other part of the world; and in no case is this dissimilarity more marked than in the animal which may be termed the particoloured bear (Aeluropus melanoleucus).

This strange animal, which has been known to European science only since the year 1869, is of the approximate dimensions of a small brown bear, and has a general bear-like aspect, although differing from all the other members of the family in its parti-coloured coat. The fur is long and close, with a thick, woolly under-fur. The general colour is white, but the eyes are surrounded with black rings, the small ears are also black, while the shoulders are marked by a transverse stripe of the same colour gradually increasing in width as it approaches the forelimbs, which are also entirely black, as are likewise the hind-limbs. This peculiar coloration communicates a most extraordinary appearance to the creature; and without knowing more of its natural surroundings it is difficult to imagine the object of such a staring contrast. The tail is extremely short; and the soles of the feet are hairy.

In addition to these external characteristics, the parti-coloured bear also presents some peculiar features in regard to the skull and teeth. Thus the skull is remarkable for the great width of the zygomatic arches and the enormous development of the longitudinal ridge on the upper-surface of the brain-case, both these features indicating greater power of jaw than has at present been found in anyother member of the entire carnivorous order. Then, again, the teeth differ both in number and form from those of all the other Ursidae. Instead of the forty-two teeth, characteristic of the typical bears, the parti-coloured bear has but forty teeth, all told; the diminution in number being due to the absence of the first pair of premolar teeth in the lower jaw. As regards form, the molar teeth are distinguished from those of other bears by their shorter and wider crowns; this being most marked in the first molar of the upper jaw, which is broader than it is long. The second upper molar tooth agrees, however, with the corresponding tooth of other bears in being longer than the one in front of it. The pattern formed by the tubercles on the crowns of these teeth is exceedingly complex, and approaches to that obtaining in the panda, among the raccoon family, to be noticed in the next chapter.

The parti-coloured bear is reported to inhabit the most inaccessible districts of Eastern Tibet, and to be of extremely rare occurrence. Unfortunately we are at present quite ignorant of its habits, although it is said to feed chiefly on roots and the young shoots of bamboos, and to be entirely herbivorous (pg. 32-33).

The animal described here is, of course, the giant panda. However, the range of the giant panda is not Tibet.  Their range is restricted to the Sichuan province of China, and another population can be found in the Qinling Mountains of the Shaanxi province.  Their range was originally more extensive, but their reliance of undisturbed thickets of bamboo and human hunting pressures meant that the only giant pandas left were in these remote regions.

The confusion with Tibet may come from the other panda– which is actually not a close relation.

The red panda or “firefox” (Ailurus fulgens) has been classified as a bear and as a raccoon. Currently, it is placed in its own family, Ailuridae. The two species both eat a lot of bamboo, but the red panda is not as specialized to living off of bamboo as the ursine giant panda. The two species have several morphological structures in common. Most notably, the two possess the “thumb” that is nothing more than an extension of the radial sesamoid bone.

Because of these similarities, the two were believed to be close relatives, but genomic analysis has found that the giant panda is a bear. Its fewer chromosomes were found to be fused bear chromosomes. And mitochondrial DNA analysis has found that the red panda is a unique species that is closely related to the raccoon family, the weasel family, and the skunk family– but it is such a unique lineage that it cannot be classified as belonging to any of these families.

Red pandas in recent centuries have been more widespread over the mountainous regions of Asia. Their range includes much of the Himalayas, including both Tibet and the Qinling Mountains, where a population of giant pandas can be found. But its range also extends south to Burma and includes both Indian and Nepal. IUCN considers it to be a threatened species. It is in no way as endangered as its supposed black and white cousin.

My guess is confusion with the red panda caused Lydekker to make the claim that these animals are Tibetan. Considering how little anyone knew about giant pandas at the time, it is a fair mistake.

Lydekker also didn’t know that the panda is one of the oldest bear species. It is most closely related the tremarctine bears– only one of which still exists, the South American spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus). The oldest giant panda fossil has been dated to 2.6 million year ago. However, this pygmy giant panda has been classified as a different species, though it was likely ancestral to the modern giant panda. ( “Pygmy giant panda” is quite the oxymoron, don’t you think?)

The giant panda is a truly unique species, but it shows the real dangers species can face if they become too specialized to a single niche and a single food source. If one’s fortune is hitched to only a very specific star, what happens if that star should burn out?

But this specialized animal has managed to survive 2.6 million years.

If only it could survive us.

 

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The mystery beast was a giant panda cub.

The mystery beast was a giant panda cub.

The orignal post was here. Giant panda cubs, like all bears, are born in a relatively underdeveloped state, much less devoped than puppies are. These panda cubs are being bred in captivity in many zoos throughout the world. However, the biggest panda breeding center is the Wolong Giant Panda Breeding Centre.  This center has perfected panda breeding and has even come up with a way of doubling its success.

Giant pandas usually give birth to twins. However, the female typically will raise only one cub. The Wolong panda experts take that abandoned twin and raise it. In this way, they double the number of pandas produced.

If you look closely at the original post’s picture, you’ll notice that the feet are really unusual, even for a bear. Pandas actually have a wrist. It is actually a modified sesamoid bone that allows the panda to grip its food, which is mostly bamboo.

BTW, giant pandas are bears. They are one of the most primitive species of bear, but they are bears nonetheless. Studies of their molecular evolution have satisfied that they are bears.

The red panda has a similar wrist, and it does eat bamboo. However, it is now thought to either be a member of the raccoon family or a member of its own family. The evidence for the latter, I think, is stronger.

Although the adult giant pandas do look cute, they can be aggressive, especially captive ones. A giant panda recently bit someone in China, who entered the panda’s enclosure. This panda had bitten two other people previously.

And then there’s always this footage:

From the youtube user krzychuthc92

Moral of the story, don’t sit too close to the panda cage!

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