No one would ever suggest pandas are graceful. Short of limb, essentially round, and astoundingly good at falling out of trees, they’re the slapstick stars of the animal kingdom. But they are bears, and bears are meant to be good at climbing trees, so why are pandas… not? Well, it turns out some are, just not all.
A collaborative project saw researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology study baby giant pandas at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in China (it’s a tough job but someone has to do it) to evaluate the climbing skills of the fluffy comedians. They discovered that those that were capable of scaling a trunk had an unusual knack to help them; they used their heads – literally.
“There have been almost no studies on any bear species, especially on climbing. This research is the first of them and we are hoping to look at different bear species and their climbing abilities as they age. This will allow us to understand how climbing develops as the animals grow older,” Andrew Schulz, a conservation physicist at Georgia Tech, who presented their findings at the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology meeting in Texas last week, told IFLScience.
Schulz and colleague, Rose Zhao, an undergrad in Medical Engineering at Georgia Tech, observed 1-year-old pandas’ attempts to climb a purpose-built structure of bare tree trunks in their enclosure. The Chengdu Research Base runs a captive breeding program that aims to reintroduce pandas into the wild, so it is essential to study and develop the skills they will need to survive.
“The point of this project is assessing pandas' ability to be suited for reintroduction. This has multiple parts that we put together in the class including climbing, balance, energy expenditure, thermoregulation, chewing rate. We decided that the first one to tackle is climbing as it is the main thing pandas are known to do,” Schulz said.
They found a wide disparity in the youngsters’ climbing skills, but the ones who were successful appeared to be using their heads as an extra limb to help grip as they shinned up the trees.
Panda's don't appear to have a body built for climbing. Schulz likened them to corgis, with short limbs and large heads, though it’s hard to imagine a corgi climbing a tree.
"Without long limbs, it's difficult for them to climb so they end up using their most massive appendage... their head," Schulz told IFLScience.
"By using their head and neck to grip the pole they are able to successfully climb, which is unlike any other species I’ve ever seen," he added. "The only other animals that use their head to climb are marsupial babies who will climb into their mothers’ pouch when they are born."
The ones that used their head to help grip hugged the trunks as they shimmied up them, keeping their center of gravity directly above their back legs, much like human rock climbers do when they cling to a wall.
The ability to climb means a better chance of survival in the wild, as the bears will be able to escape predators like wild dogs. Pandas aren't quick, and their defensive weapon arsenal is not well-stocked, so being able to get up and out of reach is vital for them. Schulz said they were not looking to teach the young pandas to climb, something that would be done by their mothers, but were looking for those that had a natural climbing ability as they would have a higher chance of being released successfully into their natural environment. There are currently 10 pandas undergoing adaptive training in the Base's transition center, "Panda Valley".
The researchers plan to go back and study the same baby bears next year to see if the ones only capable of falling (rolling, face planting etc) out of trees have got any better. Fingers crossed!