Panda Trio, Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding (via)
Humans tend to see giant pandas as humorous creatures, perhaps because they've been portrayed as a bit clumsy in children's cartoons. No, actually, pandas can be pretty clumsy.
But not many who observe these bears think they lack intelligence. In fact, Giant pandas are some of the cleverest forest dwellers out there and, even in captivity, they continuously demonstrate it to their keepers, who, for the asking, will probably tell you half a dozen stories of just how smart they are.
I love the story told on the Pandashock blog about a female panda, Al Hin, who resided at a Chinese panda breeding sanctuary. When Al Hin began to get moody and restless, her caretakers, thrilled that she might be pregnant, started giving her more food and treats and special attention. But soon the keepers started to notice that once Al Hin got the extra treats, she immediately returned to her normal, non-pregnant behavior. (This was not a 'false pregnancy,' as some female pandas may experience; this was a very cunning bear manipulating her keepers!)
© Ruud Zwart, Rotterdam, The Netherlands (via)
As you probably know, Giant pandas were on the endangered species list for many years; however, the International Union for Conservation of Nature upgraded the bear's status to 'vulnerable' in 2019. Still, there is considerable concern about panda safety in the wild and what helps them survive even though they are bred in captivity. It seemed to researchers at Georgia Tech in Atlanta and China’s Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding that a cub's ability to climb trees (fast!) would be a primary element of survival, especially for those being chased by wild dogs.
Eight adolescent bears were videotaped climbing, or attempting to climb, "four bark-stripped tree trunks, each a different diameter, holding up a high platform," built by the researchers at Chengdu. Not every one of the bears made it to the top, but those that did used their heads to get there. And the more frequently they used their heads, the faster they reached the top!
Having a very short leg-to-body ratio, the pandas needed to use their heads, almost as a fifth claw, to help them stay in place as they release and move another claw.
You can observe this in the video below from the Chengdu Research Base:
What a great research project! I wonder if some kind of program will be developed at the Chengdu Research Base to train Giant pandas on the use of their heads in climbing?