Humans and giant pandas are not very alike, but in one essential point, our bodies are similar. It could help explain our evolution
If you want to understand how humans evolved, there are a few species that you obviously want to take a look at.
Chimpanzees are a good bet. After all, they are our closest relatives, they give us clues about our ape ancestors. The monkeys are also worth a look, for similar reasons.
You may also be interested in unrelated animals, which are known for their intelligence and large brains. Crows or dolphins would be nice.
You surely wouldn't bother studying a panda. Sure, they're cute, but they have nothing to do with us. They aren't close relatives, and they don't have a lot of brains.
This is all true, but according to a new analysis, pandas could be extremely relevant to our evolution. They could help explain one of the most special things about the human body: our upright posture.
Humans and pandas are both mammals, and the majority of mammals spend most of their time on four legs. From dogs and rats to bears and elephants, it's the norm.
Walking on all fours means that your back is horizontal, parallel to the ground. This determines the layout of the bones in your back and how they join with the bones in your legs and arms.
Humans are different. We hold our back and spine vertically, at a right angle to the ground. Monkeys often do the same.
The question is when and why this upright posture evolved. To find out, Gabrielle Russo of Stony Brook University in New York and Scott Williams of New York University decided to compare humans to another species that stands with its back straight.
They wanted something that wasn't an ape or a monkey, because these species have been under a lot of evolutionary pressures like us. It is therefore difficult to distinguish the factors which have provoked this or that change in evolution.
This is where the giant pandas come in.
Like other bears, they spend a lot of time sitting on their hindquarters with their backs straight.
Russo and Williams wanted to know if the pandas' spine had changed shape like ours as well.
If so, it would suggest that pandas and humans evolved in their upright position for similar reasons. On the other hand, if the pandas' spine was not like ours, it would suggest that pandas have evolved their standing posture for different reasons.
They compared the shape of individual backbones - the vertebrae - of nearby pandas and bears.
Compared to their closest relatives, pandas had fewer vertebrae in the lower back, and the vertebrae were shaped differently. The same change happened when our ape-like ancestors transformed into apes.
If pandas and monkeys evolved into their upright posture for the same reason, what could that be?
Traditionally, the shape of the spine of monkeys is explained by their habit of swinging under tree branches using their arms, or climbing vertical tree trunks. But pandas don't do any of those things, so Russo and Williams say that's unlikely to be the explanation.
Instead, it could all come down to something very simple: sit up straight on your butt.
“Gorillas spend a lot of time sitting upright and eating bamboo and other leaves,” Russo and Williams say. Sitting upright leaves their hands free to pick and prune the leaves.
The same goes for giant pandas, who have to spend most of their time sitting down eating bamboo.
Russo and Williams believe that monkeys probably began adopting standing postures 15 to 20 million years ago.
“There are fossil monkeys like the Pierolapithecus that show adaptations in their lower back to an upright posture,” they say.
The line that would lead to humans then separated from the rest of the apes some time ago, between 13 and 7 million years ago.
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