The limestone caves of south China have recently coughed out the bizarre phrase “pygmy giant panda.”
“It’s not as complicated as it might initially sound,” says Canadian linguist, Genny LeCroix. “When we began this project, there was the very real concern that ‘pygmy’ and ‘giant’ would simply cancel each other out, leaving just ‘panda,’ which might have been extremely unstable without any modifiers. That’s not the sort of thing you want hanging around in caves. It’s dangerous and confusing. Fortunately, a few lab tests revealed that we were dealing with a real object – bones, in fact – and not an actual oxymoron”
Ironically, discovery turned out to have much more significance to biology and natural history than linguistics. Two million years old, the bones belong to the skeleton of an animal extremely similar to the modern giant panda, only about half the size.
Wear patterns on the pygmy giant panda’s teeth, and muscle attachment locations on the skull, suggest that the extinct creature was adapted to eating bamboo shoots, just like its giant descendent. The giant panda is the world’s only known wholly vegetarian bear, and the evidence that this specialization extends back at least two million years shows that pandas have been “uniquely pandas” for a very long time.
The Chinese government, fearing a repeat of the “pygmy mammoth” situation on Wrangel Island, was thrilled at the news, and has commissioned an international team of experts to reconstruct what the pygmy giant panda must have looked like in life. Here’s a look at some of their early results: