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The Science Behind Why Pandas are So Famously Clumsy

You'd be clumsy too, if you looked like a panda.

By Cassidy Ward

In the ancient and fictional Valley of Peace, a menagerie of anthropomorphized animals thrive. 
Viewers got their first glimpse of the valley in the 2016 animated martial arts flick Kung Fu Panda (the fourth film is streaming now on Peacock), where a clumsy panda named Po (Jack Black) works at his dad’s restaurant. He loves kung fu but he’s not very good at it, because he’s a panda, and because he’s unmotivated.

Through a series of accidents, Po is accidentally named the Dragon Warrior, a prophesied hero who will save everyone while exhibiting limitless power. Pandas are many things, but fighting skills aren’t on that list. While many animals are known for being fierce or graceful, pandas are mostly known for being clumsy.

Why Pandas Are Clumsy and Why That Isn’t a Bad Thing

Over the years, pandas have gained a reputation for being lazy and uncoordinated, and that reputation is well earned. However, rather than a character flaw, the adorable behavior of pandas is the result of an unusual evolutionary story. Much like Po, real-world pandas are actually quite capable when properly motivated.

Pandas, as they currently exist, have only been around for between 2 and 7 million years, when their ancestors transitioned from a more typical bear diet of mostly meat, to one which entirely consists of bamboo. Their brains have received the message, but their bodies haven’t quite caught up yet, and they aren’t well adapted for digesting their high-fiber fare. As a result, they spend about 12 hours a day eating, just to keep their pudgy tanks full.

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Pandas eat between 26 and 84 pounds of bamboo per day but they only digest around 17% of it. That means they spend a lot of time eating, just to get enough energy to keep on eating. They don’t have a lot of time for social activities and live solitary lives, coming together only in the spring to mate.

Pandas have to exert so much energy just keeping themselves fed that they’ve adapted to conserve energy in other ways. Pandas are clumsy in part because they are always looking for the lowest-energy way to get something done, and sometimes the easiest way to get somewhere is to fall there.

It helps that they have bodies perfectly suited for rolling around. Their rounded frames and short limbs might make them predisposed to tumbling, and their sedentary lifestyle might make matters worse. Because they sit in the same spot for so long, some researchers have hypothesized that their muscles fall asleep. When they want to get up, they might have some trouble and opt to roll around instead.

Then there is the question of fun. We sometimes forget that humans don’t have a monopoly on having a good time. People who spend a lot of time watching pandas say that they tumble around because it’s fun for them, and that is reason enough. Pandas might be bad at existing by human standards, but they are perfectly good at being pandas.

Catch Kung Fu Panda 4, the latest chapter in the saga, streaming now on Peacock!

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