Here's a nice, sprightly, startling lede from the review of a new book about pandas.

It is one of the more startling revelations in Henry Nicholls’s sprightly history that we still have no idea how many giant pandas there are currently living in the wild. Fewer than 2,000? More than 4,000? Perhaps odder still, there remains a never-extinguished debate about what exactly a panda is. A bear? A raccoon?

I don’t particularly care about how many pandas remain in the wild. Enough, probably. I do care about that stuff and nonsense about a “never-extinguished debate” around the giant panda’s relatives.1

It most certainly has been extinguished, stomped on, dead.

In 1982, my co-author and I used a study of panda molecules as just one example of what was then the relatively new and exciting field of molecular phylogeny -- using molecules to piece together ancestry and evolution. Our point was to show that when people used the molecules to sort out the confused evolutionary history of species such as pandas, or seals, most scientists had not the slightest difficulty in accepting the findings. When the species under the microscope was our own, reactions were very different.

Now I haven’t read Henry Nicholls’ book about the panda, which does indeed sound pretty interesting. So I don’t know how he actually treats the evolutionary history of the panda, as opposed to how the reviewer treats it. But that pioneering panda protein paper2 was published in Nature, the very journal that Mr Nicholls often writes for, under the title The Giant Panda is a Bear. A moment on Google turned up two further3 papers that confirm Vince Sarich’s original conclusion, plus the considered opinion of the scientists at the Giant Panda Species Survival Plan.

You can’t possibly write a book about the panda without knowing about those pieces of research. Can you?


  1. The red panda is another problem entirely.  

  2. I can’t believe I just did that. 

  3. The paper is in Chinese, but the abstract was all I needed.  

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