Pandas are pudgy, short-legged bears. Yet cubs clamber up trees. They do so using their head.
Panda cubs use their head as a make-do extra paw, first pressed against one side of the tree and then against the other. This extra pressure helps a bear hold on as it releases and raises an actual paw. Similar behavior has only been seen in newborn kangaroos, which use their heads to help haul themselves to their mother’s pouch for the first time.
As with all things, there’s a knack to it. The skillful ones use their heads 4 times more often than cubs who don’t take to climbing.
Like cats, pandas find going up is the easy part. “They’ll climb up fairly quickly into a tree, but it seems like they can’t quite figure out how to get back down,” say panda zookeeper Nicole MacCorkle. Only squirrels, with their specially designed flexible feet, climb down trees as easily as they climb up.
A.K. Schulz et al, “Panda cub climbing for conservation,” Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology 2020 Annual Meeting (4 January 2020).
Susan Milius, “How pandas use their heads as a kind of extra limb for climbing,” Science News (28 January 2020).