The giant panda has a complicated reputation. It is known as an adorable animal, a symbol of Chinese diplomacy, the poster child for endangered animals, the poster child for charismatic megafauna who get too much attention for being endangered, and a creature that’s really bad at sex (with exceptions).
So it’s unsurprising that pandas are seen as bumbling animals, but in actuality, they do have one very impressive skill: their bodies neutralize cyanide. Yes, the poisonous chemical that famously smells faintly of almonds.
You see, raw bamboo contains cyanide and, if eaten, will make the average person extremely sick; it can even be deadly. (Cooking gets rid of the cyanide.) Pandas, of course, primarily eat bamboo, and have adapted to overcome this. In a study published in Nature a couple years ago, scientists investigated how this works by measuring the cyanide content in the bamboo shoots they fed to 20 giant pandas. In addition to measuring cyanide in the shoots themselves, they measured the cyanide in the pandas’ feces.
They found that, first, pandas are ingesting cyanide — it’s not like they’ve found a way to only eat bamboo that doesn’t contain it. Giant pandas absorbed more than 65 percent of the cyanide present in the shoots. But their bodies were able to turn 80 percent of that absorbed cyanide into a less toxic chemical called thiocyanate, which they then peed out. It’s an inspiring story, really. It’s possible to be a giant cuddly animal that everyone underestimates, with the little-known power of being able to eat poison.