The Panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) is a member of the bear family and lives in a few remote mountain ranges in Central China. The panda prefers a cool, damp, isolated habitat and may climb to altitudes of 11,000 feet to find it. Pandas live in dense, old-growth bamboo forests with high coniferous leaf canopies. They live a secretive, solitary existence with perhaps fewer than 1,200 being left in the wild. Because of their scarcity, their numbers are difficult to count.
Although classified as a carnivore, 99% of a panda's diet is bamboo. They can eat a number of different varieties of the fibrous plant and need to consume more than 30 pounds a day. A panda will eat other plants, small rodents, and fish if they are easily available, but otherwise it spends more than 12 hours a day eating bamboo. It is not known when in its history the panda adapted to this mainly vegetarian diet, but its digestive system has not. Bamboo provides little nutritional value and the panda is inefficient at extracting it. Other parts of the Panda's anatomy have adapted better. Their esophagus, and stomach lining has toughened to handle bamboo's woody texture. Their face has broadened to accommodate stronger jaw muscles and their molars have flattened to be more efficient at crushing stalks and grinding plant material.
Pandas are immediately recognizable. They have black ears and eye patches, black hind legs, forelegs, chest and shoulders. The rest of the panda is white. Pandas are about 2 – 3 feet tall at the shoulder, 4 – 6 feet long and can weigh 180 – 300 pounds. They are roughly the same size as the American Black Bear. It is the height and shape of the Panda's black "stockings" or the width of black across its shoulders which help scientists tell individual bears apart. Pandas possess a double coat. The top layer of fur is coarse, the under layer, dense and wooly. The fur has an oily feel and deflects water, protecting the panda in its cold, misty environment.
The panda has developed an elongated wrist bone that acts as an opposable thumb. This adaptation, combined with flexible forepaws, helps the panda pincer-grip small shoots and leaves, the parts of its diet that is most nutritious. While eating, the panda sits on its back-end, splaying its rear legs out in front of it. This is the most common pose zoo-goers see. The panda's slow movements and gamin-like appearance make it seem harmless, but it is just as dangerous as any other bear. In the wild, Pandas will live 18 – 25 years.
The Giant Panda is critically endangered, mainly due to loss of habitat. Sanctuaries set aside for them are isolated and scattered and the remaining panda populations find it hard to migrate for food resources and mating. Pandas are notoriously ineffectual reproducers. Females only ovulate once a year and so have a narrow window (perhaps 72 hours) in which to conceive. If mating is successful the cub is born a mere 120 days later. If twins are born, the mother will choose the strongest to nurture and let the weaker cub die. Panda young are extremely dependent and vulnerable. They are about the size of a stick of butter when born (1/900th the size of their mother) and can not even crawl until they are three months old. Unfortunately panda cubs are susceptible to disease and can be preyed upon by eagles, leopards or wild dogs when their mother leaves to feed. A female panda is successful is she rears five cubs to maturity in her lifetime.
Fun Panda Facts
- Panda Diplomacy began back in the Tang Dynasty. It's a term that describes China's use of Giant Pandas as gifts to foreign nations. Perhaps the most famous incident of Panda Diplomacy was when Mao Zedong gifted the United States with the pandas Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing in 1972.
- Panda's only digest 20% of what they eat. The other 80% is excreted. This means pandas poop over 12 times a day.
- The Western world did not know about Pandas until 1869 when a French missionary, Pere David, returned to Europe with a panda skin.
- Pandas are good tree-climbers and swimmers.
- Pandas have been on earth for about 3 million years and are considered "living fossils" because many of the species they co-existed with are now extinct.