Mechanical Evidence for the Phylogenetic Origin of the Red Panda's False Thumb as an Adaptation to Arboreal Locomotion

by   Braden Barnett, et al.

We constructed a modular, biomimetic red panda paw with which to experimentally investigate the evolutionary reason for the existence of the false thumbs of red pandas. These thumbs were once believed to have shared a common origin with the similar false thumbs of giant pandas; however, the discovery of a carnivorous fossil ancestor of the red panda that had false thumbs implies that the red panda did not evolve its thumbs to assist in eating bamboo, as the giant panda did, but rather evolved its thumbs for some other purpose. The leading proposal for this purpose is that the thumbs developed to aid arboreal locomotion. To test this hypothesis, we conducted grasp tests on rods 5-15 mm in diameter using a biomimetic paw with 0-16 mm interchangeable thumb lengths. The results of these tests demonstrated an optimal thumb length of 7 mm, which is just above that of the red panda's true thumb length of 5.5 mm. Given trends in the data that suggest that smaller thumbs are better suited to grasping larger diameter rods, we conclude that the red panda's thumb being sized below the optimum length suggests an adaptation toward grasping branches as opposed to relatively thinner food items, supporting the new proposal that the red panda's thumbs are an adaptation primary to climbing rather than food manipulation.


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