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Why Bao Bao is Our Cover Girl

The editor-in-chief of Smithsonian on what makes the panda cub so adorable

America’s first case of pandamonium broke out in 1937, when a baby panda made a spectacular appearance at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, drawing more visitors on a single day than any other animal in the zoo’s history. The animal had been captured in the steamy highlands of Tibet by a most unlikely adventurer, a hard-drinking, chain-smoking Manhattan socialite and dress designer named Ruth Harkness. A blithe spirit left with a small fortune after her husband died on his own panda quest, Harkness decided to take up the cause. It was a seemingly impulsive, madcap decision for a woman who, as Vicki Constantine Croke wrote in The Lady and the Panda, “wouldn’t even walk a city block if there was a taxi nearby to be hailed.” But Harkness thrived on her arduous 1,500-mile trek, which included a torrid affair with her Chinese expedition leader, and she returned with the prize that eluded her husband.

Not that obsessions always end well. The Brookfield cub died a year later; Harkness, never as happy again as she had been on her romantic Tibetan adventure, passed away a decade later of alcoholism.

Panda-mania has been epidemic ever since, though it hasn’t necessarily been good for the pandas. There are now only an estimated 1,600 of the bears left in the wild, with an additional 300 in zoos and breeding centers around the world. One of the most famous is at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, a cub named Bao Bao born on August 23. More than 123,000 votes were cast on the cub’s new name at Smithsonian.com, and hundreds of thousands of visitors are expected to visit her this year after she makes her public debut (scheduled for early in 2014). Writer Susan Orlean and photographer Tim Flach paid exclusive visits to Bao Bao and her parents in late October and early November (“Ready for Her Close-Up,” p. 28).

Bao Bao is the cover girl for our evotourism® section, which presents places where you can see remarkable evidence of evolution. Why is a panda our face of evolution? Take your eyes off her face for a moment and look at her thumb. In a famous essay, evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould marveled at the panda’s thumb as coming “equipped not only with a bone to give it strength but also with muscles to sustain its agility.” Incredibly, rather than evolve an opposable thumb from the fifth digit—as apes including us have done—pandas turned a wrist bone into a workable solution to maneuver bamboo. Gould called the thumb an “elegant zoological counterpart to Darwin’s orchids.”

But the most striking thing to me about the giant panda is its deep past as a carnivore; exactly how and why the bear switched from a diet of meat to one that is now 99 percent bamboo is a mystery. Though it was surely a smart evolutionary move at the time, it now seems less than ideal. As Orlean suggests, however, the charismatic megafauna has developed a new, canny trait: the ability to appear irresistibly adorable to humans.

Michael Caruso
Editor in Chief
Michael@si.edu

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