We’ve all heard it – the idea that Pandas are a “worthless” species, that they should be allowed to die out. It is the hot topic of conservation blogs and news articles and can lead to impassioned rebuttals from Panda advocates around the world. One such rebuttal, written by Dan Nasowitz, PopSci.com’s Associate Editor, caught our attention given both it’s depth and scientific foundation.
Many argue that we are only interested in saving the Giant Panda because it is a “cute” species – an attitude that Nasowitz finds both totally flawed and genuinely harmful to the conservation movement as a whole. As he says, “the conservation movement directly affects all of us; it affects the air we breathe, the water we drink, the plants and animals we eat, the survival of the planet. It is not frivolous, and it is not helpful to attack it with “edgy” arguments”. Rather than try to restate Mr. Nasowitz’s arguments, we are presenting his content here, in a 3 part series.
Statement: “Pandas have a really ridiculous diet. Can you believe they only eat non-nutritious bamboo?”
Response: So, this statement belies a fundamental, willful misunderstanding of ecosystems and evolution. You don’t get to decide what’s an appropriate diet; whether the animal can survive in its ecosystem (assuming, of course, that we don’t burn it down and build houses there) is the only actual test. Ecosystems are built up of specific niches, wherein each niche can support a species. For example! Many insects lay eggs deep in trees, where they hatch into larvae. There is lots of larvae in trees, and larvae is a very good source of protein, so that creates a niche: an animal can evolve to take advantage of that abundant food source, and thus survive. In North America and Europe, the animal that has figured out how to get those delicious larvae out of the trees is the woodpecker. But in Madagascar, isolated from Africa for millions of years, there are no woodpeckers–but there are still larvae. That food source hasn’t gone unexploited! The aye-aye, a bizarre, scary-looking lemur, has evolved to take the place of the woodpecker. It has a long, thin middle finger, which it taps on the trees to listen for the echo of a grub inside, and then uses its sharp, rodent-like teeth to gnaw out the wood to get to the grub. Is the aye-aye a “bad primate” because it acts like a bird? No, of course not; it simply evolved to take advantage of a food source.
The panda is the same way. Sure, bears are typically omnivores or carnivores, and the panda is a 99 percent bamboo-eater, but that doesn’t make it a “less worthy” animal, because that kind of judgment is ridiculous. Bamboo is a grass that grows absurdly rapidly; it isn’t particularly nutritionally dense, but there is a lot of it, which comes out to the same thing: that is a food source that can be taken advantage of. In other places with lots of vegetation like this, all kinds of different animals can fill that niche. In Australia, where there is lots of low-nutrition but abundant eucalyptus, the koala is there to eat it. In the African grasslands, where there are lots of spiky, unappetizing-looking acacia trees, the giraffe is there to eat it. And in China, where there is lots of bamboo, the panda is there to eat it.Statement: “But the panda is a bear! Bears aren’t even evolved to eat bamboo!”
Response: Um, well, bears actually eat all kinds of different things. All bears are in the order Carnivora, but that refers to morphological traits like teeth and stomach enzymes rather than diet, and doesn’t imply anything about what an animal’s diet is “supposed” to be. The sloth bear of India eats termites almost exclusively. Polar bears eat hardly anything besides marine mammals (and, in fact, very rarely eat anything but two species of seal). The spectacled bear of South America eats weird vegetation, like the inner bark of trees, orchid bulbs, and cacti, and hardly ever eats meat. There aren’t very many species of bear, but they’re spread all over the world and most have had very little contact with each other. The panda is a very ancient bear, unchanged for millions and millions of years; that’s why it has a special enzyme in its gut to break down the bamboo. That enzyme isn’t, like, a cheat code; the panda survives by eating what it eats. The panda has been here a hell of a lot longer than us, eating bamboo and doing just fine until we came along.
“Pandas have lived on our planet for about three million years,” Heather Stohl of the World Wildlife Fund told The Telegraph. “The big threat is not really an evolutionary one, it’s the fact that their habitat is being destroyed and fragmented.”
To say the panda shouldn’t survive because it’s a bear and bears don’t eat bamboo would be like saying that all Canadians should just die because they’re humans and humans aren’t supposed to live in places that cold. It’s sort of true, in that yes, the panda’s diet is unusual for a bear, and yes, Canadians live in a curious place for a human, but the fact that pandas have survived on a bamboo diet for millions of years and the fact that Canadians are still living up there in the Arctic is the end of that argument. Evolution isn’t a greater than/lesser than situation; pandas don’t need to act the way you think bears should act in order to be gifted with survival. They’re still here, and that’s the only thing that matters.
Join us Wednesday for the next installment of this series – or if you would like to read the article in full, CLICK HERE.