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Panda Updates – Monday, October 4

Today we’re going to take a closer lick – sorry, I mean look – at giant panda tongues! The tongue of each species is specialized to its needs. It determines the taste profile the animals experience, grooming abilities, and is an important part of how they manipulate their food. For example, cat species have large papillae (those spiky projections) with hollow cavities on their tongues that help them groom their fur and lick meat off bones (Noel, 2018). 

In 2008, a team of scientists in Spain led by Dr. J. F. Pastor published the results of their examination of a panda tongue using scanning electron microscopy, a method which allowed them to evaluate the types of papillae present on its surface as well as its form. Giant pandas diverged from other bear species around 12 million years ago and their diets have transitioned from carnivorous to herbivorous (Waits, 1999). Because of this long history of divergence and change, giant pandas have tongues that differ from other bear species. For example, Zoo Atlanta’s sun bears often use their long tongues to pick up food and bring it to their mouths, but the giant pandas pick up their food with their paws. Reflecting this, giant panda tongues have lost their efficiency at bringing food to the mouth. Giant panda tongues also have a region with little to no papillae, which scientists hypothesize may be caused by bamboo repeatedly sliding over the same area of the tongue (Pastor, 2008). Overall, the team led by Pastor found that giant pandas have tongues that reflect both carnivoran and herbivorous traits- just like the giant panda! They concluded that the giant panda’s tongue may not be done adapting to its herbivorous tasks and could change further in the future. I guess we’ll just have to wait a few thousand years and see! 


Pastor, J. F., Barbosa, M., & De Paz, F. J. (2008). Morphological study of the Lingual Papillae of the giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) by scanning electron microscopy. Journal of Anatomy, 212(2), 99–105.  

Noel, A. C., & Hu, D. L. (2018). Cats use hollow papillae to wick saliva into fur. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115(49), 12377–12382. 

Waits LP, Sullivan J, O’Brien SJ, Ward RH (1999) Rapid radiation events in the family Ursidae indicated by likelihood phylogenetic estimation from multiple fragments of mtDNA. Mol Phylogenet Evol 13, 82– 92. 

Michelle E.
Keeper III, Mammals

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