The giant panda belongs to the Ursidae family. Its scientific name is Ailuropoda melanoleuca which means black and white bear. However, it is also known as the panda bear or simply panda.
Giant panda bears inhabit mountain ranges in central China. Mainly the Sichuan, Shaanxi, and Gansu mountains. They can mostly be found at elevations between 4000 to 13000 feet.
From the tip of their nose to the end of their tail, the average male panda bear is about 5 feet to 6 feet in length. They weight anywhere from 175 to 275 pounds. Female pandas are roughly 20 percent smaller than males.
Pandas have thick fur. The outer layer of fur is long and coarse. However, they also have dense and wooly underlayer. Their fur, like polar bears, is oily which helps repel water and offers protection from cool damp climates.
The giant panda bear has a large head. Both the head and torso are white. Their ears are black and rounded. They have black fur around their eyes. Across the shoulder is a black band of fur. Their legs are also black.
The panda bear’s front paws have extended wrist bones which allow them to use their paws like hands. They are skilled at handling food like bamboo stems.
They have great night vision though they are nearsighted and have limited color vision. Their sense of smell and hearing, however, are excellent.
These bears have large molar teeth and strong jaws which allow them to easily crush bamboo. Their throat and stomach have a tough layer that protects against injury from bamboo splinters.
Panda bears do not hibernate. They are able to find food all year round in the form of bamboo. During colder months, they move to lower elevations where it is warmer and continue to feed on bamboo.
Giant pandas are considered to be carnivores. However, they prefer to feed on bamboo. 99% of their diet is made of stems and shoots of bamboo. They spend 12 to 16 hours a day and eat about 20 to 40 pounds of bamboo during their feeding. They eat this much because their digestive system only absorbs about 20% of the bamboo they eat. Panda bears also feed on insects, rodents, and fish (1% of the time).
Pandas are mature enough to reproduce between the ages of 5 to 7 years. The mating season usually occurs from March to May. Gestation lasts 135 days on average. They usually give birth to 2 cubs in August or September.
The cubs weigh about 4.6 ounces or less at birth. Panda bears only take care of a single cub from her litter. The rest are left to die. The surviving cub usually stays with the mother for 1.5 years.
There are an estimated 2000 giant pandas in the wild (the year 2006). Giant pandas have a lifespan of 35 years on average in captivity. However, in the wild, the average lifespan is 15 to 20 years.
The giant panda is a vulnerable species, threatened by continued habitat loss and habitat fragmentation, and by a very low birthrate, both in the wild and in captivity. Its range is currently confined to a small portion on the western edge of its historical range, which stretched through southern and eastern China, northern Myanmar, and northern Vietnam.
Interest Facts About Giant Panda Bears
- Its Chinese name dà xióng māo means great bear cat.
- The only known subspecies is the Qinling panda.
- The giant panda is a folivore, with bamboo shoots and leaves making up more than 99% of its diet.
- They are slow-moving animals and only speed up to a slow trot if they sense danger.
- Pandas live solitary lives except during the mating season.
- They mark their territories using several scent glands which they have below their tails.
- Overall, bamboo is not very nutritious. To stay healthy, they have to eat a lot—up to 15 percent of their body weight in 12 hours—so they eat fast.
- They are one of the world’s rarest mammals.
The Qinling Panda Ailuropoda melanoleuca qinlingensis is the only known subspecies of the Giant Panda. It was identified in 2004 and named by Qiu-Hong Wan, Liang Zhu, Hua Wu and Sheng-Guo Fang in 2005. There are a number of physical differences between the Qinling Panda and the Giant Panda.
The Quinling Panda is smaller. Its head is smaller and more round, yet its teeth are large. Its fur is light and dark brown as compared to the black and white of the Giant Panda.
It is found in the Foping, Yang County, Ningshan, Taibai and Cheggu areas of the Qinling Mountains where it is protected with the help of the Changqing and Foping nature reserves. There are an estimated 200-300 Qinling Pandas in the wild.
- BBC Nature: Giant panda news, and video clips from BBC programs past and present.
- Panda Pioneer: the release of the first captive-bred panda ‘Xiang Xiang’ in 2006
- WWF – an environmental conservation organization
- Pandas International – a panda conservation group
- National Zoo Live Panda Cams – Baby Panda Tai Shan and mother Mei Xiang
- Information from Animal Diversity
- NPR News 2007/08/20 – Panda Romance Stems From Bamboo
- View the panda genome on Ensembl.
- Texts and pictures of the Panda exhibition at the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin
- “Ailuropoda melanoleuca“. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. IUCN.
- Giant Panda Facts and Pictures – kids.nationalgeographic.com