The Lesser Pandas

Design and the False-Thumb

Chad Arment (2023)

The living red panda, Ailurus fulgens, is an anomaly. It is raccoon-like in shape and size, and is mostly herbivorous. Living in the alpine bamboo forests of Nepal, adjacent states in the Indian Himalayan Region, Bhutan, Tibet, northern Myanmar, and southwest China, the red panda can be found on steep-sloped forest hillsides with dense bamboo cover. It feeds preferentially on tender bamboo shoots and leaves, but also eats other flower and fruit species, sometimes on eggs and small vertebrates. It is the only extant member of the Family Ailuridae, which in the evolutionary model joins the Families Mephitidae (skunks), Procyonidae (raccoons), and Mustelidae (weasels) in a larger grouping, the Superfamily Musteloidea.

How is the red panda anomalous? Salesa et al. (2011) noted that the living species “is a derived form, far removed from the group’s morphotypical condition.” In other words, it has extreme adaptations for an herbivorous diet that are very different from fossil members of the family, which were far more carnivorous. We will look at its most famous adaptation here, along with the fossil history, to evaluate its baraminic lineage within a creationist context.

Red panda, Ailurus fulgens (Mathias Appel)

the false-thumb

Red panda, Ailurus fulgens (Mathias Appel)

For many years, there was debate as to whether the giant panda, Ailuropoda melanoleuca, was related to bears or raccoons, because it shared this unusual adaptation with the red panda, which evolutionists believed to have branched off raccoons (though sometimes lesser pandas were suggested to be bears themselves). Genetics and the fossil record eventually solved that issue (Van Valen 1986). The giant panda is settled within the lineage of bears and lesser pandas have been given their separate family of ailurids.

Both giant and lesser pandas have paws that lack prehensile capabilities. So, to grasp bamboo and other botanical treats, they use a ‘false-thumb’—an enlarged radial sesamoid bone that acts as a sixth digit (Antón et al. 2006). The false-thumb is considered an example of convergent adaptation: the morphological feature developed in separate lineages independently, and is now used in a similar manner.

Originally, though, the lesser pandas weren’t herbivorous. The discovery that a Miocene ailurid, Simocyon, had a false-thumb (Salesa et al. 2006; Salesa et al. 2008) even though it was carnivorous, points to it being advantageous in another way. It probably aided early lesser pandas in grasping and climbing small branches. Other small climbing carnivores have been noted with similar, though moderate development of the radial sesamoid (Antón et al. 2006). So, when the modern red panda emerged as an essentially herbivorous carnivore, it was able to adapt the false-thumb for a secondary purpose: food manipulation. The giant panda false-thumb, in contrast, apparently developed at the same time that early giant pandas began a bamboo diet, but under morphological constraints due to walking under the animal’s bulky weight (Wang et al. 2022).

Within an evolutionary model, both the ailurid and ursine lineages have a common ancestry, but independently developed the radial sesamoid bone through contingency (chance) and selective constraints. The ailurid lineage then secondarily adapted the development for another purpose. Within a creationist model, baraminic lineages were separately created, but we aren’t told in the Bible what those lineages are. It seems reasonable to consider the Ursidae and the Ailuridae as separate baraminic lineages (see Thompson and Wood 2018), though it is possible the baramin encompassing the Ailuridae includes multiple families, such as the raccoons (Procyonidae), skunks (Mephitidae), and weasels (Mustelidae). Without knowing the correct extent of the baraminic lineage that includes the Ailuridae, we have no way of determining if the Ark Kind pair may have had false-thumbs, or if that was a later development.

Creationists also believe that baraminic lineages were created by God with the ability to adapt and diversify as they spread around the globe. This means it isn’t simply chance that creates opportunity for change. Rather, there is a genetic framework designed for diversification. Mutations are not necessarily random; there may be constraints, triggers, or directionality. There may be different genetic pathways to the same solution, or one pathway may lead opportunistically to a different end. With the lesser and giant pandas, convergence is not just morphological and physiological: there are genetic convergences as well, with 70 adaptively convergent genes identified (Hu et al. 2017). Two limb development genes demonstrate adaptations, and there are convergent changes in genes related to digesting bamboo and reducing umami (meat) taste-sensitivity.

Evolutionists like to claim that the false-thumb is an example of anti-design, that if God created it, it should be as well-designed as the human thumb. (Ironic, that.) Of course, this is usually based on the false premise that God created each species independently, which is not a creationist concept. Rather, God designed each baraminic lineage with the ability to change, with potential for unique and fascinating adaptations in morphology and physiology that are quite astounding—just like the pandas’ false-thumbs. There’s nothing anti-design about them. Our growing understanding of baraminic genomic design should lead to a greater appreciation of the Creator’s work with living things.

Red panda paw, false-thumb circled (Mathias Appel)

Ailurid History

Parailurus (Dawkins 1888)

There may or may not have been post-Flood precursors to the Family Ailuridae. The earliest carnivoramorphan mammals (bearing a true pair of carnassial teeth) in Paleocene and Eocene strata included the small weasel- or civet-like Viverravidae and Miacidae. The evolutionary model looks to the Miacidae as more closely related to and basal to the order Carnivora. The Miacidae is generally considered paraphyletic. For creationists, there may be an ancestor to the Ailuridae among the Miacidae, there may be an as yet unidentified ancestor, or we might look to the earliest fossil ailurid as a candidate Ark genus.

There are three subfamilies of ailurids: the Amphictinae, the Simocyoninae, and the Ailurinae. The Amphictinae is comprised of a single genus, Amphictis, which shows up primarily in Late Oligocene to Early Miocene European strata (Salesa et al. 2011). Amphictis was a generalist carnivore without any dental specialization. Interestingly, a fossil mandible was tentatively assigned to Amphictis, from the Late Oligocene to Early Miocene Belgrade Formation in North Carolina (Baskin et al. 2020). It compared favorably with Amphictis ambiguous from France and Amphictis schlosseri from Germany. This would be the earliest record of an ailurid in North America. Amphictis may have been ancestral to the other subfamilies. The Miocene saw the emergence of the other two subfamilies and the majority of genera.

Within the Simocyoninae, Alopecocyon from Eurasia was another generalized ailurid, which appears to have been closely related to Actiocyon of North America (Salesa et al. 2011). Actiocyon was found in the Middle Miocene Monarch Mill Formation of Nevada, making it the earliest representative of the Simocyoninae in North America (Smith et al. 2016). Protursus is a Late Miocene genus that has only been found once, in Spain. The Holarctic genus Simocyon was not only widespread, and found into the Pliocene, but it was a larger animal, “puma-sized” and likely the most carnivorous of the ailurids (Kullmer et al. 2008; Salesa et al. 2011). Simocyon batalleri shows the false-thumb found in the modern-day lesser panda. There is enough material to show the development of species within the genus, from more generalized to more derived, reducing the number of premolars (Spassov and Geraads 2011). This shift, and enlargement of the p4 premolar, may have been an adaptation towards crushing and utilizing whole small prey (Peigné et al. 2005). Incidentally, one reason Simocyon is better known than other fossil ailurid genera is due to the remarkable preservation of skeletal material, along with several other Miocene carnivores, at Batallones-1, south of Madrid, Spain, where a clay-filled cavity acted as a natural trap and tomb (which itself supports the conclusion these are post-Flood animals).

Within the Ailurinae, Magerictis shows up in the Middle Miocene of Spain (Ginsburg et al. 1997). Its placement within the Ailurinae may change, however (Wallace 2011), as it is primarily known from a tooth, and several other specimens have yet to be described in the literature. Pristinailurus was described from the Late Miocene Gray Fossil Site in Tennessee (Wallace and Wang 2004). Parailurus appears in numerous Pliocene sites, across Europe and Asia to North America (Tedford and Gustafson 1977; Sasagawa et al. 2003; Sotnikova 2008; Wallace 2011). Pristinailurus and Parailurus teeth suggest a broader omnivorous diet, both vegetation and meat. Perhaps this move away from total carnivory allowed a trajectory heading towards a more herbivorous diet as seen in the living lesser panda, Ailurus. Wallace (2011) noted that Ailurus may have split off early from other ailurines, but lacks an Asian fossil record which would provide better data.

Today, we only have the red panda, Ailurus fulgens. Genetic, morphological, and biogeographic evidence (Hu 2020; Joshi 2021) suggests that there may be two species: the Himalayan red panda, A. fulgens, and the Chinese red panda, A. styani. Just as with so many animals, what we see living today is just a small sampling of the manifest potentiality of a baraminic lineage throughout its history since Creation.

Red panda, Ailurus fulgens (Mathias Appel)


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