There are few creatures on this planet as oddly enchanting as a big, black-and-white, roly-poly panda. Their dorky antics are just as irresistible as their dramatic, color-blocked eyes. All it takes is a few minutes watching their behavior and it’s definitely not a stretch to call them downright silly animals in a way no other species can match.
Whether they’re on their thirtieth somersault happily crashing down a hill, holding their babies with a distinct lack of elegance and at times upside down (but with obvious maternal love), what other animal is so delightful to watch? It’s no wonder this adorable species is the official mascot of the World Wildlife Fund and a universal symbol of conservation.
Many of us are content to just watch these creatures and giggle, but other may want to know why on Earth they are how they are. Here’s a little bit of wild and wonky panda behavior (“panda-monium,” if you will) explained:
Why Do Pandas Roll so Much?
Pandas seemingly love to roll forward, backward and even sideways. Scientists have actually come up with a few reasons as to why. First, pandas are overall pretty lazy animals. Why walk when you can use gravity and roll down hills? They tend to sit and lounge for long periods of time, and some think that this makes their muscles fall asleep. By the time they decide to move from their comfort zone, it can become difficult to walk. Imagine sitting in a chair for hours in a row—sometimes when you get up to walk, it can take a bit before your circulation flows well and you feel sure on your feet.
Pandas’ body shape also contributes to their clumsiness, because they have round bodies and short limbs, making them easily fall out of balance and roll. Scientists have also observed that rolling is something that pandas genuinely seem to enjoy, just like cats love clawing and dogs love sniffing things.
Another possible reason pandas are clumsy movers is because of their eyes. While in the wild in dense bamboo forests, they can only see nearby objects compared to those that are far away, so some scientists think that their vision could have evolved to be very limited. Regardless of their habitat, pandas both young and old seem to enjoy stumbling and staggering around.
Why Are Pandas Obsessed With Poop?
Pandas’ focus on poop goes beyond the fact that they defecate on average about 40 times per day. Panda cubs are known to eat their moms’ feces to allow for the easy digestion of food. Cubs find it difficult to digest bamboo, their primary diet, because there are no good bacteria in their intestines yet. But momma pandas’ poop contains all the bacteria needed to enable proper food digestion, so until the cubs’ intestines sort things out, they count on hers.
It took scientists a long time to get to the bottom of why pandas roll in horse poop. Many mammals roll in poop, but most avoid the poop of other animals for health reasons. But pandas love nothing more than fresh horse manure. And they don’t just roll in it—they use their paws to carefully rub it all over themselves until their entire body is covered.
Why? Well, recent research has shown that there are two major chemicals (called sesquiterpenes) in horse poo that help laboratory mice keep warm. These chemicals are beta-caryophyllene (BCP) and beta-caryophyllene oxide (BCPO). Over years of tracking, scientists observed that the bears tended to do this mostly when the temperature outside was brisk, between 23°F and 59°F. Pandas handle the cold differently than other bears. They don’t hibernate, since their low-calorie diet of bamboo makes it hard to build up the necessary fat stores. The sesquiterpenes found in fresh horse manure have the ability to dull the sensation of cold, which has led scientists to conclude that pandas cover their fur in fresh horse manure to help numb themselves to the cold.
Pandas Look so Cute. But Are They Actually Friendly?
Though most giant panda keepers have great fondness for the animals that they care for, they don’t often have illusions that their feelings are reciprocated. The general consensus is that pandas can develop temporary and highly conditional relationships with humans—but that those relationships have everything to do with simple sustenance. Basically, whoever brings them food (or extra food-based treats!) can have their attention for a little while.
Solitary in the wild, pandas don’t even have meaningful, lasting relationships with one another. After weaning, “the only time they spend with others of their kind is as babies and then later to mate,” says Rebecca Snyder, curator of conservation and science at Oklahoma City Zoological Park and Botanical Garden. Panda families don’t live together, and every panda has a well-defined range. The secret to keeping peace in the habitat is dividing territory by scent markings. Giant pandas leave their glandular secretions on tree stumps and on the ground in their habitats. Perhaps due to their uncommunicative and eccentric temperaments, giant pandas prefer the freedom of being alone, with less than one month spent with their partners during mating season.
Giant pandas are docile overall and often lower their heads or shade their faces with their front paws in an attempt to conceal themselves when they come across a human for the first time. They seldom attack people or other animals, choosing to try and evade conflict first. However, giant pandas consider their vulnerable cubs untouchable once they give birth, and they have been known to occasionally burst into rage at times if they feel their cubs are being watched too closely by visitors.
Why Do Giant Pandas Eat so Much Bamboo When They Have the Gut of a Carnivore?
Pandas have been singled out for their decidedly non-bearlike vegetarian diets. It has long been a mystery how giant pandas, which have a lion-like gut ideal for digesting meat, can survive eating almost exclusively fibrous, nutrient-poor bamboo.
Although pandas have many adaptations for eating bamboo (like enlarged jowls for chewing and an extra “thumb” to help hold the shoots), these do not include a long digestive tract like that of most herbivores. In fact, panda intestines are very inefficient for digesting bamboo, so they have to eat lots of it to meet their nutrition needs—upwards of 22 to 44 pounds per day (approximately 40% of their own weight).
Pandas also favor young bamboo sprouts, which have even less nutrition; if they eat only these, they must chomp down half of their body weight daily. Giant pandas can spend as many as 14 hours eating per day.
Recent research has found that they can only cope with this low-quality diet because they have an extremely slow metabolic rate, which makes sense as to why they are always cold, why they are so relatively inactive and why they have comparatively small organs for their body size. Corrected for their body weight of about 198 pounds, their metabolism is substantially lower than almost all other mammals. In fact, their metabolic rate is closer to what would be predicted for a similar-sized reptile.
But according to Megan Owen, a conservation specialist at the San Diego Zoo, there is a possible evolutionary explanation for the panda’s seemingly foolish preference for bamboo: lack of competition. When pandas split off from the bear lineage about three million years ago, tasty and nutritious cuisine like meat, fruit and nuts may have been difficult to obtain, while bamboo was a wide-open ecological niche.
So there were two choices: exert serious effort to get the good stuff (and we’ve already established that pandas are pretty lazy), or munch away on a seemingly inexhaustible supply of woody grasses. In the wild, pandas move just 88.3 feet per hour on average. With their low metabolism, pandas must minimize energy expenditure in every aspect of their lives, so eating something readily available that doesn’t fight back fits well into this plan.
Reproduction Isn’t Their Strong Suit—Yet Pandas Like Porn?
Wait, what? Yes, that’s a true fun fact you probably now wish you didn’t know. Pandas are naturally pretty terrible at sex—one of the reasons they’re considered a vulnerable species. Pandas are up against some serious hurdles when it comes to reproducing. The male penis is disproportionately small, females very seldom go into heat and males do not instinctively know how to mate. Take, for example, Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling, the cherished panda couple of the Smithsonian National Zoo. Poor Hsing-Hsing failed miserably at his early attempts to inseminate Ling-Ling—which, considering he tried to mate with her ear, wrist and foot is unsurprising. Last year, a mating pair loaned by China to the Edinburgh Zoo were so clumsy that a zookeeper was required to reach in between the bears with a long pole and move the female’s tail out of the way so they could finally figure out how to successfully copulate. The suspicion is that lazy pandas lose their already low mating desire almost completely in captivity.
Keepers at China’s main panda breeding and research center became so frustrated at the lack of ability to breed this species that they decided to show one mating pair a video of pandas having sex in the wild. And strangely enough, it actually worked. The porn led the previously uninterested pair to copulate—twice!
Want the chance to see this endearing species in the wild while you still can? Only an estimated 1,864 pandas remain in the wild. Come with us on our Wild Side of China: A Nature Odyssey trip deep in the Minshan Mountains of Sichuan province, the last natural habitat left to the giant panda.