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Why human beings are just like giant pandas

If you want to understand how humans evolved, there's a few species you obviously want to look at. Chimpanzees are a good bet. After all, they're our closest relatives, so they offer clues about our ape-like ancestors. You might also want to look at unrelated animals that are noted for their intelligence and big brains. Crows or dolphins would be good.

Chimpanzees in Uganda

You surely wouldn't bother studying a panda. Sure, they are cute, but they have nothing to do with us. They aren't a close relative, and they aren't packing a lot of brainpower.

But according to a new analysis, pandas might be extremely relevant to our evolution. They could help explain one of the most peculiar things about the human body: our upright posture.

Pandas spend a lot of time sitting on their bottoms, back upright

To find out when and why did this upright posture evolve, researchers Gabrielle Russo and Scott Williams decided to compare humans with another species that holds its back upright: the giant pandas.

In common with other bears, they spend a lot of time sitting on their bottoms, back upright. Russo and Williams wanted to find out if pandas' spines had also changed shape in a similar way to ours. If they had, it would suggest that pandas and humans evolved their upright postures for similar reasons.

Diagram of human backbone; rear and side views.

The results? After studying the shapes of individual backbones – or vertebrae – from pandas, it seemed that these animals had fewer vertebrae in their lower backs, and the vertebrae were a different shape. The same change happened when our monkey-like ancestors evolved into apes.

A panda - sitting and munching on bamboo

If pandas and humans evolved their upright position for the same reason, what could that reason be? The researchers think that it might all come down to something very simple: sitting upright on one's bottom!

Gorillas spend a significant amount of time sitting in upright posture and eating foliage. Sitting upright leaves their hands free to pick and trim leaves. The same might apply to giant pandas, which famously have to spend most of their time sitting around eating bamboo.

Mother and baby gorilla sitting down

Now, doesn’t it give you a warm, fuzzy feeling that we have something in common with the cute, furry panda?

(All images - credit: Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons licence)

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