Imagine giving birth to a baby and not being able to tell for weeks whether it's a boy or a girl. That's pretty much how life rolls for pandas — a species that, we've pointed out here before, are already saddled with incredibly complicated sex lives.
Mei Xiang, the female panda who lives at the Smithsonian National Zoo, gave birth today. Above is a screen shot from the Zoo's Panda Cam, showing the baby shortly after birth.
Why should you care about this not-quite-yet-but-soon-to-be adorable baby animal more than you care about any other adorable baby animal? Because the scientific oddities of panda reproduction make its story very interesting.
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The Los Angeles Times has a cute photo slideshow up with fresh shots of Xiao Liwu, the 5 1/2-month-old male panda at the San Diego Zoo, who has been receiving some health check-ups recently. The little guy was born at the zoo, and has been "on display" since last week for a few hours each day. If only... if only I could figure out who that shot above reminds me of.
Oh yeah, here it is.
Everybody poops, including panda bears. (See about 0:35 in the above video for evidence.) But panda poop could turn out to be quite a bit more important than your average animal excrement. That's because scientists are "mining" it for bacteria that could help make better biofuel.
The key problem with biofuel today is that the stuff that's actually economical to produce — i.e., corn ethanol — isn't really that great for the environment. Corn farming uses a lot of fertilizer, water, and herbicide. Using corn that was previously grown for food to make fuel, instead, can lead to deforestation as people clear land to make up for the lost food farming. Some models of carbon dioxide emissions suggest that, by the time you factor in things like fossil-fuel derived fertilizers and the deforestation, a gallon of corn ethanol might not be any better for climate change than a gallon of gasoline. Not all the models agree on that. But even if corn ethanol produces fewer carbon emissions than gas, you still have to deal with the fact that growing nutrient-hungry corn on the same patch of ground over and over and over is really bad for local soil and water quality.
Cellulosic ethanol could be a much better alternative — particularly cellulosic ethanol made from native, perennial plants that don't require heavy inputs to thrive and actually improve the health of the land they're grown on. The problem: Converting those plants into fuel is, so far, a lot more expensive. Cellulose — the plant fiber that makes up things like stalks of bamboo and tall prairie grasses — is tough stuff and hard to break down.
That's where panda poop comes in. Pandas process tons of cellulose every day, right in their guts. Maybe the bacteria that work for them could work for us, too.
Illustration from a peer-reviewed research paper provides poignant commentary on the futility of life
I'm not sure even Chris Ware could have done it any better.
In context, this illustration comes from a recently published paleobiology paper examining a cache of animal bones and pottery found in a sinkhole near China's Jiangdong Mountain.
One of the key things the researchers are taking away from this site: The range of the Giant Panda must have once been a lot larger than it is today.
Here's a link to the paper (which is behind a pay wall)
Via Ed Yong