Pandas, Bamboo, and Biomimicry

Bai Yu shows off a paw adapted for bamboo holding.

This summer the San Diego Zoo’s gates stay open a little later, and guests have the opportunity to hang out with their favorite animal friends longer than usual. Our Nighttime Zoo theme, China Celebration, offers a great opportunity to explore the inspirational adaptations of Chinese plants and animals. The process of studying biology in order to gain inspiration to be applied to human design is known as biomimicry or bioinspiration.

Starting with the most popular ambassador of China that we have at the Zoo, our giant pandas are quite the anomaly of the Animal Kingdom. Though their digestive systems and taxonomic classification hint that they should be carnivorous, they are instead so famously partial to bamboo. They even have a specially adapted “thumb” to grasp bamboo stalks as they strip the leaves. This “thumb” is not really a thumb at all but a modified wrist bone, giving pandas the odd appearance of having six fingers on their front paws. Astronauts, with their puffy space gloves, can’t grip nearly as well as our furry black-and-white bears. Just think how effective a robotic panda paw would be when repairing structures in space.

Almost as interesting as the pandas in the realm of biomimicry is their staple diet item, bamboo. Bamboo is a sustainable wood resource AND a source of inspiration for stability in structure. The round, hollow tube of bamboo provides support that allows the stalks to grow very tall and thin without snapping in half. As bamboo bends, the circular cross section bends into an oval, allowing flexibility in order to keep the stalk intact. Bamboo, unlike other plants, has a unique site of photosynthesis. While most plants use leaves as their solar collectors (bamboo included) bamboo plants also have chloroplasts on their stalks. Taking hints from bamboo’s strong structure and efficient use of space can provide inspiration for the design of future buildings.

Another creature from China, just as important to the ecosystem but significantly less cuddly than the panda, is the Mang Mountain pit viper, which will soon be exhibited in the Zoo’s new Panda Trek habitat. This venomous snake is part of a subfamily known and named for its infrared-sensing tissue contained in pits located between their eye and nostril. The Mang Mountain pit viper is a beautifully colored snake with alternating ragged bands of green and brown with the last ten inches or so of its tail a very light blue, an adaptation used to lure in prey. Once prey is unfortunately close (from its perspective) the pit viper strikes and pierces its prey with its almost inch-long fangs. Vipers have astonishing control over their venom secretion, a beneficial trait to conserve a precious and energy-intensive resource. They can release venom through the left fang only, the right fang only, both fangs at once, or none at all. They do so by flexing a muscle near the venom sac that expels the liquid out of the sac and down a tube ending in the fang. Snake locomotion has already inspired several different robot prototypes, but studying venomous snakes and their venom injection system could also inspire new responsive, resource-conscious liquid dispensers.

There are many other inspiring animals from China and from around the world at the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Who knows, maybe for your next invention you will be crediting a panda as a consultant!

Dena Emmerson is a biomimicry research assistant at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Nano-inspiration: Small Size, Big Potential.

Be sure to visit our Biomimicry section for more information about this exciting field of study.

29 Responses to Pandas, Bamboo, and Biomimicry

  1. That is a lovely photo of Bai Yun to start the article…..but then has she ever taken a bad photo????

  2. How very interesting, like I’m getting a science class and a class in China’s animals and enviroment , Thank you for the info, really did enjoy it. You learn something new every day.

  3. I just saw one of the stories on the bottom of the page, where the four photos appears, was “Bai Yun Trough The Years” by Senior Keeper Kathy Hawk. Even if you remember it from Sept 7, 2010, it was every bit as wonderful as the first time I read it, so you might enjoy it again, or for the first time.

  4. Okay-next I saw another box—leading to “A Yun Zi Story”, by Heidi Trowbridge-February 23, 2010, describing Yuniors first “real” rain day…….and what the keepers went through. It is a Hoot, and has some dandy photos in it. None of the Photos are in the rain, but if you need to see a really wet Yun Zi as a baby I can steer you to a great photo session by Rita Petita-just let me know.

    Just so you know just how much we enjoyed it then–there were 249 comments written after it. It was so enjoyable I decided to cruise the Messages—and not more than 1/3 of the way down found a Lucilla-writing on behalf of “The X-Man”, “Princess Lin Ping” and “Yunior”. It reads just beautifully, and I am going to check the rest to see what we have.

    It was only a few more posts to find a short conversation by Tiny, SC. As I scrolled some more I found another Lucilla about 2/3 of the way down, so we might as well scan the whole thing. Even Britney got in on the story telling with Pandolympics. Do not miss anything by Bruce in KC, Joseph in Illinois, and do take a look at the photo of Yun Zi laughing his head off by Rita Petita. I am sure I missed somebody(ie’s) names(s)—forgive me, if I missed you—but I cannot read every post and keep up woth currents too….Love AuntieGrammmmie
    P. S. there are links there to videos from Doxiemom and more………..

  5. I just watched a Birthday Video from chinas for Panda Birthdays. Did I hear wrong or did it say near the end that Mei Sheng may be expecting his first offspring??????

    Panda Team responds: As we understand it, Mei Sheng was not part of the breeding pool this year as China is focusing on males with underrepresented genes.

    • Errr…son of Gao Gao is not considered under represented? What does that mean for his future and the future of Zhen Zhen ? Can we have them back if they don’t need them :) And we can just keep Yunior too!

      • Kathy–I so agree!

      • Explain pls -why would China want underrepresented genes. :(
        You’d think the son of wild born panda would be extra valuable :) :) Especially after did mate him last year :)

        Moderator’s note: But you must remember that Mei Sheng also has Bai Yun’s genes, and she is getting well-represented through her offspring Hua Mei and Su Lin’s cubs. We’ll see what next year’s breeding season will bring for our boy (ahem, young man!).

      • Well Kathy, I vote yes to our having them back and our sweetheart Yunnie stays. What a day that would be. the Zoo couldn’t hold all the panda fans. We would really have to take turns!!

    • That is why the birth of Zhang Ka’s twins on Saturday in the semi-wild enclosure at Bifengxia is so important, especially since Zhang Ka and the father of the twins, Bai Yang are both wild-born but rescued at a young age. I suspect at least one of the twins will be kept in captivity to increase the diversity of the gene pool of the pandas living in captivity.

  6. Always very impressed with the level of information provided in these types of articles!

  7. Ever since I became involved in growing bamboo here in Virginia I have noticed more and more mature groves all over town. I have 6 different kinds planted and contrary to popular belief, bamboo (even the running kind) is relatively easy to control. It only shoots 2 weeks or so per year and once, after only 90 days, it has reached its full height you can snap it off at the height you want it and that culm will not ever grow any higher. It is a wonderfully versatile plant and after yesterday’s earthquake here that has once again been brought home to me. The rhizomes stabelize the ground, I had no damage to my deck around which some of my bamboo grows, the deck of the house next door buckled badly and is a complete loss. So, grow bamboo people! The coming hurricane will bend, but not break my bamboo and it’ll serve as a great windbreak.
    Btw, you can send a panda if you have extra, but please keep the viper. I grew up in New Guinea and have had more than my fill of snakes tyvm!

    • Marion, your blog was almost at educational as Dena’s. Too bad I live in an apartment or I would be tempted to grow some.

    • M e too! I hate snakes! All kinds. My dog threw one in the air and it almost hit me an d I was a b asket case.Just a garter snake but so what!

  8. I realize this isn’t on this topic, but I am observing Bai this morning and she doesn’t look like she feels well….anyone?????

  9. She’s in the corner of her platform with her head against the wall, breathing heavily. Poor baby.

    Moderator’s note: I just checked with her keeper, who reports that Bai Yun is fine. Sometimes, Bai likes to take those dramatic, deep breathes, but if she does get too warm, she always has access to her air-conditioned bedroom. Please don’t worry 😉

    • Dear Moderator, thanks for checking on Queen Bai, I was thinking on the same lines as Kat, that she was not feeling well. We all worry about the animals, but are reassured by the great keepers of them all. HAGD

      • Dena, great article. Love to learn something new, ty

    • She did take a number of dramatic poses this morning. But just now I saw her trying to look through the doorway to see what the keepers were doing and looking like a little cubbie. Reminded me of when Zhennie used to hang onto the wire on the windows to peek inside that room. Still miss my Zhennie.

    • Thanks for checking on her and giving us the update. We panda fans tend to worry alot when we see Momma acting out of what we consider to be normal.
      Moderator you are the best!!!

      Moderator’s note: Aww! You’re welcome.

      • I sat watching her one day, she looked to be in pain. One hour later, I decided she wasnt going to have her baby. I was worried that she would have a still born or something. She can reallly look uncomfortable! But Bai didnt hear my encouragement or the love I was sending. Too bad huh!

  10. What a wonderful post today, you have taught me so much about our precious black and white friends. Thank you SDZ for taking such good care of them and educating us. Wish we knew whether Bai is pregnant or not, she keeps us guessing and hoping. What a wonderful job you do.

  11. Thanks Dena for the blog. I, too, learn so much from them.

    The next time I am at the zoo I will definitely check out the Mang Mountain pit viper. The colouring alone will be a sight to see.

    Moderator’s note: They are “strikingly” beautiful animals!

    • Moderator – :)

    • Moderator — Groan!!

  12. I just did a quick check on the previous blog’s comments…..I am glad I did, since I would have missed a note from Yun Zi all about his “Cubbies Only” Bearday Party. There were tons of fun and lots of gifts, so be sure and read it before it gets forgotten……Love AuntieGrammmmie

  13. ‘Empress Bai, thank you for teaching me your moon cake recipes!’ says Lady Precious Jade as she presses the pastes into the different shapes.

    ‘My pleasure! I always love to teach and pass on my recipes so more people can enjoy them. Now we will put this batch in first to bake, then Ah Ping’s and yours.’

    ‘Can I add some decorations?’ asks Lady Lin Ping who has a creative streak, ‘I want to make some small toppings to the cakes.’

    ‘Well, we don’t normally as there is already a pattern on top but you can always add your touches. Here are some extra dough to make shapes.’

    ‘Cool, I want to make a bird, a star, a tree and a cat, hee hee,’ exclaims Lady Lin Ping.

    The 2 young panda ladies then set about clearing up the kitchen as the smell of freshly made moon cakes fill the air.

    ‘The Emperor Gao Gao likes the one with nuts and orange peel. Yunnie and Sheng like the lotus paste ones and the girls like the bean paste ones. I think I made enough for the family and the staff as well,’ muses Empress Bai.

    ‘Can I learn to make ‘piglet in a basket’?’ asks Lady Precious Jade.

    ‘Ah, that is easy. Just take this leftover dough and twirl it this way. See?’

    ‘Oh, Empress Bai, you make it so easy,’ giggles the 2 ladies.

    ‘Girls, you are such frequent visitors to the palace and close friends to my children, please don’t stand on ceremony. Call me Auntie Bai.’

    ‘Em…Auntie Bai, can you give us some regular cake making lessons? Yunnie always talks about your cakes,’ asks Lady Precious Jade.

    ‘Does he now? He consumes quite a few of my cakes too. Sure thing. Before we go to Cloud Lake Villa next week, I want to make a batch of cakes to bring along. We can make some banana cake, bamboo twists and maybe a yam ring fruit cake for the journey,’ suggests Empress Bai as she watches Lady Precious Jade attempt to remove some moon cakes from their moulds.

    ‘Yes, yes, flip them out and lay them on the wooden board to cool. Well done. You have a good wrist action.’

    ‘Thank you, Auntie Bai.’

    Lady Lin Ping flipped her cakes out and her cute toppings were quite successful.

    ‘Yes! I can bake. Wait till Mama sees this.’

    ‘Take some extra to Lady Lin Hui and tell her that I miss our chit chats, If she is free, she must drop by for tea.’

    ‘Sure thing. Mama is now busy running a panda cub orphanage.’

    ‘Yes, I heard that and she is doing a lot of good. I should go visit the orphanage with some cakes for the children,’ remarks Empress Bai.

    ‘Shall we? That would be a good thing to do,’ suggests Lady Precious Jade.

    ‘Yes, let’s go!’ says Lady Lin Ping.

    ‘Hahaha, I will ask the helpers to pack the cakes up and we will make new ones for our trip. You 2 are such kind hearted girls. Any Panda man would be glad to have you as wives,’ comments Empress Bai.

    Lady Lin Ping immediately nudges Lady Precious Jade who almost falls off her stool. Empress Bai picks up her baskets and pretends not to see the pink colour rising on those fluffy cheeks.

    ‘Come, ladies, help me fill these baskets and we’ll go visiting.’

    (The End)

  14. ‘Su Lin Jie Jie, can I help you with your baby?’ asks Lady Precious Jade as she chances on Princess Su Lin playing with her son.

    ‘Sure, he is quite a character,’ remarks Su.

    ‘Like his uncle Yunnie!’ butts in Princess Zhen Zhen with a loud guffaw.

    ‘Yes, Prince Yunnie has a strong personality,’ replies a calm and collected Lady Precious Jade.

    ‘Jade, take him and carry him like this…..yes, that’s right….hold him tight or he will squirm….’ as Su Lin passes her bearbino to Jade to carry.

    Jade and BFF Lady Lin Ping were playing happily with the cubby while Su Lin out her feet up. Her sister Zhen Zhen gave her a shoulder rub.

    ‘I don’t know how Mama does it. 5 and counting….I have one and he is such a handful.’ sighs Su.

    ‘Jie Jie Hua Mei has got more!’

    ‘Yup, and wait till it is your turn, ZZ!’

    ‘Well, I will make a pretty different mother and I will teach my cubby to climb and fly…’

    Su Lin’s cubby was happily trotting from one Aunty to the next to be cuddled and tickled. He bleated his pleasure. His eyes had opened and he was still surprised by the world.

    Precious Jade took him into the garden where his eyes took in everything with delight from the butterflies to the brids and the worms on the trees. He wanted to grab everything. Soon he wanted his Mama.

    As Su Lin took her cubby to nurse, she turned and asked,’ So Jade, how many babies will you like?’

    ‘I would like a large family. Maybe 6, hee hee,’ she answered honestly.

    Princess Zhen Zhen grinned,’ Looks like pandas will never go extinct.’

    Lin Ping looked up horrified, ‘I hope not. Extinct is forever.’

    ‘Exactly. But we Pandas will be around with help from our friends and allies, right?’ mused ZZ.

    ‘Yes!’ chorused everyone.

    [The End.]

  15. With so many twins being born, and not one for us, can we have one of them here? Imagine what a day that would be! A return on our bears going there. We have cuddly keepers and great sun rooms and new outdoors for learning , why not? We are tops in bear life.And imagine what the baby (ies) would have to learn all about America. English first though! Or better yet our own kindergarten. they could pay us then!