Pandas in captivity at the China Center for Research and Conservation of the Giant Panda in Wolong eat nutritious bars in addition to bamboo.
Credit: Sue Nichols, Michigan State University
Giant pandas are bears that are native to China, where they are considered a national treasure. Even with this exalted status, giant pandas are endangered: only about 1,600 live in the wild, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). About 100 live in zoos around the world.
Size & description
Also called great pandas, parti-colored bears, bamboo bears and white bears, giant pandas are distinguished from other pandas by their large size and black-and-white coloring. The bold coloring may provide camouflage, according to the Smithsonian National Zoo.
Giant pandas live up to their name. They are 4 to 5 feet (1.2 to 1.5 meters) tall and weigh up to 300 lbs. (136 kilograms), according to the National Geographic, about the same as an American black bear. By comparison, their distant relatives, red pandas, are only 20 to 26 inches (50 to 65 cm) tall and weigh 12 to 20 lbs. (5.4 to 9 kg).
In the wild, giant pandas are only found in the remote, mountainous regions of central China, in Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu provinces, according to the National Zoo. In this area, there are cool, wet bamboo forests that are perfect for the giant panda's needs. Giant pandas make their dens from hollowed-out logs or stumps of conifer trees found within the forest.
A giant panda's appetite for bamboo is insatiable. They eat bamboo 12 hours a day. That adds up to 28 lbs. (12.5 kg) of bamboo each day, according to National Geographic. But one reason they eat so much is that bamboo is low in nutrients, according to the San Diego Zoo. Giant pandas also eat rodents, fish, insects and birds. Eating both vegetation and meat makes these pandas omnivores.
The giant panda's stomach is ideal for digesting bamboo. The walls of the stomach are extra-muscular to digest the wood of the bamboo. The stomach is also covered inside with mucus that prevents it from being punctured by splinters.
Giant pandas are loners. They dislike being around other pandas so much that they have a heightened sense of smell that lets them know when another panda is nearby so it can be avoided, according to the National Geographic. If another giant panda does get close, the two will end up swatting and growling at each other. Sometimes they will even bite each other.
On average, a giant panda's territory is about 1.9 square miles (5 square kilometers). To mark their territory, giant pandas secrete a waxy scent marker that they rub on their territory. Other giant pandas can tell the sex, age, reproductive condition, social status and more from the scent marker, according to the San Diego Zoo.
The only time that these pandas seek each other out is during mating season. Males will use their smelling ability to find a female when they are ready to mate.
Giant pandas mate in the spring. After mating, the female will be pregnant for 100 to 180 days. Then, she will give birth to one or two cubs. Cubs weigh only 3 to 5 ounces (85 to 142 grams) when they are born, according to the San Diego Zoo and are completely blind at birth.
At 18 months, the cub is weaned and sent to live on its own. By the time the females are four to five years old and the males are six to seven years old, the cubs are fully mature. [Gallery: Baby Panda Pics]
Giant pandas are indeed bears. For many years, scientists had wondered whether pandas were a type of bear, raccoon or something else. However, studies of panda DNA have confirmed the panda's relationship with bears, according to the San Diego Zoo.
The taxonomy of giant pandas, according to the Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS), is:
- Kingdom: Animalia
- Subkingdom: Bilateria
- Infrakingdom: Deuterostomia
- Phylum: Chordata
- Subphylum: Vertebrata
- Infraphylum: Gnathostomata
- Superclass: Tetrapoda
- Class: Mammalia
- Subclass: Theria
- Infraclass: Eutheria
- Order: Carnivora
- Suborder: Caniformia
- Family: Ursidae
- Genus & species: Ailuropoda melanoleuca
The IUCN's Red List of Threatened Species categorizes giant pandas as endangered. This is an improvement. In the 1980s, giant pandas were listed as rare by the IUCN. As of 2008, when the most recent assessment was made, there was "little doubt" that there were less than 2,500 mature giant pandas in the wild. A survey in 2002 indicated a total population of about 1,600 individuals. National Geographic estimates that 100 giant pandas live in zoos.
Steps are being taken to save them, though. There are 50 panda reserves in China that protect around 45 percent of the giant panda's habitat, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
Giant pandas have a special bone that extends from their wrists called a “pseudo-thumb,” according to the San Diego Zoo. They use the pseudo-thumb to hold and manipulate bamboo.
Giant pandas will climb 13,000 feet (3,962 m) up the mountains of their home area to feed on higher slopes in the summer, according to the National Geographic.
Male pandas, like many other mammals (but not humans) have a baculum, a bony rod in the soft tissue of the penis. In most bears, it is straight and directed forward. However, in giant pandas, it is S-shaped and directed backward, according to the Animal Diversity Web.
- San Diego Zoo: Giant Panda
- World Wildlife Fund
- Smithsonian National Zoological Park: Giant Panda Facts