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Giant pandas are black-and-white Chinese bears that are on the verge of extinction. These large, cuddly-looking mammals have a big head, a heavy body, rounded ears, and a short tail.
The Chinese people call the panda "Da xiong mao," which means "giant bear cat" in Chinese. The panda is a symbol of peace in China.
This bear is quite different from other bears. It has unusual cat-like eyes, and its front paws have an opposable "thumb."
Female pandas are called sows, males are called boars, and the young are called cubs.
Most bears' eyes have round pupils. The exception is the giant panda, whose pupils are vertical slits, like cats' eyes. These unusual eyes inspired the Chinese to call the panda the "giant cat bear."
Pandas have very good eyesight.
Giant pandas are white with black patches around the eyes, ears, shoulders, chest, legs, and feet. This black-and-white coloring may camouflage (hide) the panda in the snowy, rocky environment.
The largest pandas grow to be about 250 pounds (115 kg), about the weight of a large adult human. They are about 5.25 to 6 feet (1.6 to 1.8 m) long. The average adult male panda grows to be about 3 feet (1 m) tall at the shoulder and weighs about 220 pounds (100 kg). The average adult female panda grows to be about 2.5 feet (80 cm) tall at the shoulder and weighs about 180 pounds (80 kg). The panda's tail is about 6 inches (16 cm) long.
|Adult Giant Panda ||Weight ||Height (at shoulder) ||Length
(snout to tail)
|Female ||180 pounds (80 kg) ||2.5 feet (80 cm) ||5.25 feet (1.8 m)
|Male ||220 pounds (100 kg) ||3 feet (1 m) ||6 feet (1.8 m)
Pandas have the most specialized diet of any of the bears. Their diet is almost exclusively two species of bamboo (arrow and umbrella bamboo).
Pandas eat about 40 pounds (18 kg) of food each day. Bamboo is very low in nutrition. Even though the panda eats this plant, it cannot digest it very well and most of the bamboo passes undigested through the digestive tract. It has to eat for up to 12 hours every day in order to get enough nourishment. Its throat and stomach have extra-tough linings to protect them from the tough food.
Other problems with a bamboo diet:
- These bamboo plants only grow in a few places. This limits the range of pandas tremendously.
- Bamboo species go through periodic die-offs after they flower. Most plants in an area die-off at the same time (after flowering). When this happened in the past, pandas would migrate to another area where the bamboo was still flourishing. With the greatly reduced bamboo forests of today, this option is not always available. This leads to periodic starvations among giant panda populations.
In captivity (zoos and breeding centers), pandas eat bamboo, rice cereal, carrots, apples, and sweet potatoes.
Pandas usually eat while sitting in an upright position. Sitting this way, they can use their front paws to hold their food.
Panda front paws are very unusual. These paws have five clawed fingers plus an extra bone that works like an opposable thumb. This "thumb" is not really a finger (like our thumb is). It is really an extra-long wrist bone that works like a thumb.
The panda uses these dextrous paws to grasp its food (bamboo shoots and leaves).
Since pandas spend most of their time eating tough, nutrition-poor bamboo, strong teeth and jaws are very important to a panda's survival. Giant pandas have large molars (flat teeth used for crushing food). They also have a few sharp teeth which they use to bite tough bamboo stalks. Pandas have 42 teeth. They also have strong jaw muscles which they use for chewing tough bamboo.
Pandas have very thick, oily, woolly fur that keeps them warm in their cold, wet mountain habitat. Their fur is made of two types of hairs; there are long, thick, coarse hairs and a shorter, fine, dense underfur. This fur is waterproof.
In the wild, giant pandas only live in a few mountain ranges in central and western China, mainly in Sichuan, Shaanxi, and Gansu provinces.
Because of habitat destruction, the pandas now live in a series of broken ranges. This has created six isolated populations that do not interbreed.
The natural habitat of the giant panda is cool, wet, cloudy mountain forest land where bamboo grows. Giant pandas are found in mixed deciduous/evergreen temperate forests, between 3,000 and 10,500 feet (900-3,200 m) in altitude (below the timberline). Pandas used to also live at lower altitudes, but farming and land development have pushed the pandas high into the mountains.
Giant pandas are an endangered species and their numbers are dwindling very quickly as their habitat is destroyed. There are roughly 1,000-1,500 pandas living in the wild (in China). There are about 120 living in zoos and breeding centers around the world. This species is extremely vulnerable to extinction because of humans.
Giant pandas are mostly shy, solitary animals. They live most of their lives alone. A small group of pandas may share a large feeding territory, usually only meeting to breed. Scientists don't know very much about the lives of these animals.
Giant panda bears are mostly silent, but they can bleat! They don't roar like other bears, but they do have 11 different calls, four of which are only used during mating.
The giant panda's life span in the wild has not been accurately documented, but Chinese scientists report that some pandas in zoos have lived to be 35 years old. Hsing-Hsing, who lives in the National Zoo, turned 29 in 1999. Most animals live longer in captivity than in the wild.
Giant pandas have a rolling gait. Like people and other bears, giant pandas are flat-footed (plantigrade - that is, both heel and toe touch the ground when walking).
Pandas are good tree climbers, using their short claws to grab onto the bark. Sometimes they take afternoon naps high in the trees.
Unlike many other bears, pandas cannot walk on their hind legs.
Giant pandas do not hibernate since their food is available all year long. Also, the bamboo they eat is not high enough in nourishment to fatten them up for the winter. During the cold winter months, giant pandas go to lower altitudes where it is a bit warmer; they also take shelter in hollow trees or dens. They don't seem to have permanent dens.
Pandas have a very slow reproductive rate which contributes to their declining numbers.
Male and female giant pandas mate in the spring, attracting each other with calls and odors.
Females give birth between 95 and 160 days after mating. They have their cubs in dens that they dig in the ground. One or two cubs are born but usually only one survives.
Panda cubs are small, white, blind, furless, and helpless at birth. Except for marsupials (kangaroos, opossums, etc.), giant panda cubs are the smallest newborn mammals. They weigh four to six ounces (85-140 g) as newborns. This is lighter than an apple.
Like newborn human babies, panda cubs cry when they are hungry or need care from their mother. Their coats take on adult coloring about a month after birth. Cubs' eyes open at six to seven weeks. They will follow their mother at about three months after birth. They start eating bamboo at about 6 months old and are weaned from their mother at about 9 months.
Panda cubs grow very slowly. They stay with their mother for one to two years. They are fully grown in 2-4 years.
PREDATORS OF PANDAS
Humans are the giant panda's greatest enemy. Poachers still hunt giant pandas for their pelts, which they sell. Also, leopards sometimes kill cubs.
THE EVOLUTION OF PANDAS
The giant panda seems to have evolved during the late Pliocene or early Pleistocene, roughly two to three million years ago. During those times, the giant panda's range extended throughout southern China. Panda fossils have been found in eastern China (as far north as Beijing) , Burma, and Vietnam.
The giant panda is considered a true bear (before recent genetic studies, it was thought to be a member of the raccoon family). It belongs to the:
- Kingdom Animalia (the animals)
- Phylum Chordata
- Subphylum Vertebrata (animals with backbones)
- Class Mammalia (warm-blooded animals with hair and mammary glands)
- Order Carnivora
- Family Ursidae (Bears)
- Genus and Species: Ailuropoda melanoleuca meaning "cat feet black white"
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