On Saturday we introduced you to Dan Nasowitz, PopSci.com’s Associate Editor, and his arguments AGAINST the idea that Pandas should simply be allowed to “die out”. The first of his rebuttals focused on diet, today we give you his responses to the “reproduction arguments”.
Statement: “Pandas are so lazy! They just sleep all the time. Why should we care about a sleepy lazy bear?”Response: Ha ha, I get it, because it’s fun to rank animals based on arbitrary human qualities. And, like, fine, joke around, whatever. Obviously everyone knows that some animals sleep more than others, based on diet and temperament and size and location.Statement: “It’s dying out so fast because it has such a low birth rate. This is somehow the panda’s fault!”Response: Some animals have lower birth rates than other animals. “Birth rate” is actually called “natality” when referring to animals, and it varies wildly, as animal species have all kinds of different reproductive strategies. The leatherback sea turtle lays dozens of eggs per mother, burying them in the sandy beaches of South Florida and the Caribbean. The eggs are eaten by raccoons, crabs, dogs, and shorebirds. The ones that survive all hatch at the same time and make a break for it towards the ocean. Those are eaten en masse by predators from land and air. The lucky ones make it to the ocean. There more of them are eaten by marine predators. The turtle’s strategy is to lay so many eggs, and have them all move at once, so predators simply can’t get to all of them.Other animals have different strategies; many mammals, like humans, have long periods of intense parental care, which protects the offspring in the early stages, preventing the need for quantity. The blue whale gives birth once every two or three years. The jaguar gives birth about once every other year. Some animals reach reproductive age in a few months, some (like the gharial, a relative of the crocodile) can take over a decade. These aren’t worse strategies than the turtle’s; there are no good or bad strategies when you’re talking about this kind of thing. They’ve worked so far. Whether they work or don’t work is the only barometer here; success is a binary.Pandas often give birth to twins, only one of which is allowed to survive. That, too, is a reproductive strategy, and not a weakness. Having two offspring gives you a doubled chance of giving birth to a strong, viable cub. It sounds cruel to us, because we like to anthropomorphize animals and assume that they think as we do. But they don’t, and the twin thing is just a strategy–and not an unusual one, either.And animals that have evolved for millions of years to be stable with a certain birth rate (and a certain diet) often can’t just change in a few thousand years as people move in, destroy their habitat, eliminate their food source, shuttle them around from preserve to preserve, and occasionally shoot them. The panda can’t start giving birth more often because it’s critically endangered; that’s not how this works. If you were told that the human race now suddenly depends on being able to give birth every other month and subsisting on oak leaves, it’s not like you could just do that. And that doesn’t make the human race weak! It’s just not how evolution works.Statement: “Pandas don’t even like to have sex! They’re, like, bad at it, and we have to show them panda porn and stuff.”Some animals don’t breed well in captivity. This is not a fault! Imagine if you and a person of the opposite sex, whom you’d never met before and in fact might despise or not feel attracted to, were locked in a small glass cage and glowered at by aliens, who got increasingly annoyed that you failed to have sex in front of them. This is a good explainer of why captive breeding is sometimes so hard. There are all kinds of environmental cues that trigger mating amongst animals, and sometimes we have no idea what they are, or can’t provide them. The white rhino, for example, was highly difficult to breed in captivity, because zookeepers were simply putting a male and female near each other and waiting. Turns out, rhinos are herd animals, and for a male to get in the mood, he has to interact with several females before choosing one. The rhino wasn’t too dumb to breed; we were too dumb to figure out how it breeds. Big cats, like cheetahs, also “are extremely tricky to breed in captivity,” Pierre Comizzoli, a research scientists at the National Zoo, told AFP. “If they don’t like each other they are going to kill each other.”We don’t know why pandas don’t mate well in captivity. So we try all kinds of different tactics, some of which are silly. But it’s pretty ridiculous to blame the panda for that.
Join us Saturday as we conclude this series – or if you would like to read the article in full, CLICK HERE.