Giant panda, (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), also called panda bear, bearlike mammal inhabiting bamboo forests in the mountains of central China. Its striking coat of black and white, combined with a bulky body and round face, gives it a captivating appearance that has endeared it to people worldwide. According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, fewer than 2,000 pandas are thought to remain in the wild.
Large males may attain 1.8 metres (6 feet) in length and weigh more than 100 kg (220 pounds); females are usually smaller. Round black ears and black eye patches stand out against a white face and neck. Black limbs, tail, legs, and shoulders contrast with the white torso. The rear paws point inward, which gives pandas a waddling gait. Pandas can easily stand on their hind legs and are commonly observed somersaulting, rolling, and dust-bathing. Although somewhat awkward as climbers, pandas readily ascend trees and, on the basis of their resemblance to bears, are probably capable of swimming. An unusual anatomic characteristic is an enlarged wrist bone that functions somewhat like a thumb, enabling pandas to handle food with considerable dexterity.
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carnivore: Critical appraisal
…panda () and the giant panda (). Both species have been classified equally often in the Ursidae (bears) or the Procyonidae (raccoons). However, the latest classification places the giant panda in Ursidae and the lesser panda in Ailuridae. Another lesser-known species, the fossa (), is regarded as…READ MORE
As much as 90–98 percent of the panda’s diet consists of the leaves, shoots, and stems of bamboo, a large grass available year-round in much of China’s forested regions. Despite adaptations in the forepaws, teeth, and jaws for bamboo consumption, the giant panda has retained the digestive system of its carnivore ancestry and is therefore unable to digest cellulose, a main constituent of bamboo. Pandas solve this problem by rapidly passing prodigious quantities of the grass through their digestive tracts on a daily basis. As much as 16 out of every 24 hours is spent feeding, and elimination of wastes occurs up to 50 times per day. Fossilized dental remains indicate that the giant panda committed to bamboo as its principal food source at least three million years ago. Although unable to capture prey, pandas retain a taste for meat, which is used as bait to capture them for radio collaring and has made them pests in human camps on occasion. The species cannot naturally survive outside bamboo forests, though in captivity they have been maintained on cereals, milk, and garden fruits and vegetables. Bamboo is the healthier diet for captive pandas.
The giant panda’s solitary nature is underscored by its reliance on its sense of smell (olfaction). Each animal confines its activities to a range of about 4 to 6 square km (1.5 to 2.3 square miles), but these home ranges often overlap substantially. Under this arrangement scent functions in regulating contact between individuals. A large scent gland located just below the tail and surrounding the anus is used to leave olfactory messages for other pandas. The gland is rubbed against trees, rocks, and clumps of grass, with scent conveying information on identity, sex, and possibly social status of the marking individual. Chemical analysis of marks is consistent with a difference in function for males and females. Males appear to use scent to identify the areas where they live, whereas females primarily use it for signaling estrus. Except for the mothers’ care of infants, the only social activity of pandas takes place during females’ estrus, which occurs annually during the spring and lasts one to three days. A spring mating season (March–May) and a fall birth season (August–September) are seen in both wild and captive populations. Males appear to locate females first by scent and ultimately by vocalizations. Assemblages of one to five males per female have been recorded. At this time males may become highly aggressive as they compete for the opportunity to mate.
Like bears, giant pandas undergo a delay in implantation of the fertilized ovum into the wall of the uterus, a period of two to three months after mating. Hormone levels in females’ urine indicate that the period of embryonic/fetal growth and development lasts only about two months. Altogether, gestation averages 135 days (with a range of 90–184 days), but, because of the short growth phase, a term fetus weighs only about 112 grams (4 ounces) on average. Relative to the mother, giant pandas produce the smallest offspring of any placental mammal (about 1/800 of the mother’s weight). For the first two to three weeks of life, the mother uses her forepaws and her thumblike wrist bones to cuddle and position the infant against herself in a rather uncarnivore-like and almost human fashion. Nearly half of the 133 captive births recorded before 1998 were of twins, but panda mothers are typically unable to care for more than one infant. Reasons for the extremely small size of the offspring and the frequent production of twins are not understood, but both are traits shared with bears.
The newborn panda is blind and covered with only a thin all-white coat. It is virtually helpless, being able only to suckle and vocalize. It depends on its mother for warmth, nourishment, positioning at the breast, and stimulating the passage of wastes. Development is slow during the early months. Eyes begin to open at about 45 days, and the first wobbly steps are taken at 75–80 days. Its helpless state mandates birth in a den, an environment in which it lives for the first 100–120 days of life. By about 14 months, at which age the milk teeth have erupted, the infant readily consumes bamboo, and at 18–24 months weaning from the mother takes place. Separation from the mother must occur before a female can undertake the production of her next litter. Captive pandas may live beyond 30 years in captivity, but life span in the wild is estimated at about 20 years.
Conservation and classification
Fossils from northern Myanmar and Vietnam and much of China as far north as Beijing indicate that the giant panda was widely distributed throughout eastern Asia during the early Pleistocene Epoch (2.6 million to 11,700 years ago). Human destruction of its forest habitat, combined with poaching, has restricted the species to remote fragments of mountain habitat along the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau in the Chinese provinces of Sichuan (Szechwan), Shaanxi (Shensi), and Gansu (Kansu). The total area of these habitats is about 13,000 square km (5,000 square miles), and in recent times periodic mass flowering and die-offs of bamboo have brought starvation for some populations. (Five to 10 years are required for bamboo forests to recover from these natural events.) Since the 1990s China has greatly expanded its conservation efforts, and it now regards the panda as a national treasure. The reserve system has been expanded from 14 sites to more than 40, and cooperative international arrangements were implemented to provide training in reserve management and captive breeding. The panda had long been considered an endangered species by the IUCN, but the environmental organization changed the status of the panda to “vulnerable” in 2016, because of China’s success in restoring bamboo forest habitat.
Prior eras of giving pandas as gifts and of short-term commercial loans to zoos have given way to lending agreements that generate funds for preservation of the wild population. More than 120 pandas are maintained in captivity in China, and another 15 to 20 are found in zoos elsewhere. Captive populations are increasing. Su-Lin, the first of the giant pandas to be exhibited in the West, reached the United States as an infant in 1936 and was a popular attraction at the Brookfield Zoo, near Chicago, until its death in 1938. No European observed a live giant panda in the wild until the Walter Stötzner expedition of 1913–15, although Armand David, a Vincentian missionary, discovered some panda furs in 1869.
The classification of giant pandas has long been a subject of controversy. Anatomic, behavioral, and biochemical data have been used to place pandas with bears (family Ursidae), with raccoons (Procyonidae), or in a family of their own (Ailuridae). Improved molecular analyses made during the 1990s strongly suggest bears as the giant panda’s closest relatives, and many of their behavioral and reproductive characteristics are consistent with this placement.Donald G. Lindburg
Ailuropoda melanoleuca, already considered rare in ancient China, is now limited to the provinces of Sichuan, Gansu, and Shanxi in the central part of the country. The total range covers 29,500 sq. km, but only 5900 sq. km is panda habitat (Ward and Kynaston, 1995; Massicot, 2001).
Giant pandas inhabit montane forests and mixed coniferous and broadleaf forests where bamboo stands are present (Helin et al., 1999; Massicot, 2001).
In general, A. melanoleuca has a round head, stocky body, and short tail. The shoulder height is 65-70 cm. It is well-known for its distinctive black and white markings. The limbs, eyes, ears, and shoulders are all black and the rest of the body is white. In some areas the black actually has a chesnut-red tinge. The dark markings around the eyes may be the reason for these animals' popularity giving them a wide-eyed, juvenile appearance. An enlarged shoulder and neck region along with a smaller back end gives giant pandas an ambling gait. A baculum (bony rod in soft tissue of penis) is present as in many other mammals. However, in other bears it is straight and forwardly directed, while in giant pandas it is "S" shaped and backwardly directed. Giant pandas also have several adaptations to the skull. They have a large sagittal crest that has become wider and deeper resulting in powerful jaws. The molars and premolars are wider and flatter than other bears' and they have developed extensive ridges and cusps in order to grind tough bamboo. A notable feature on these animals is an extra, opposable digit on the hand known as "the panda's thumb." It has caused confusion in the past as to these bears' classification. This digit is not actually a thumb but a pad of skin overlying a radial sesamoid structure (wrist bone) (Ward and Kynaston, 1995; Helin et al., 1999).
Females in this species increase their scent markings as well as become more vocal when sexually receptive. A study between sexually active and sexually inactive pandas suggested that scent markings relate to sexual activity and captive inhabitance could be the cause for the poor reproductive ability. Males may also compete for access to a female (Liu et al., 1998; Ward and Kynaston, 1995).
Mating occurs from March to May. The female is in estrous for roughly 1-3 days. There is usually a delay of implantation which can last 1.5 months to 4 months. This may be due to climatic conditions so that the young is born at a fairly stable time. Females are less active as estrous begins, however they become restless, lose their appetite, and their vulva swells. Most of the young are born in August and September. Actual embryonic development lasts about 1.5 months. At birth, giant pandas, like all other bears are blind and helpless; but unlike most bears at birth, giant panda cubs are covered with a thin layer of fur. Newborn cubs weigh 85 to 140 grams. Immediately after birth the mother helps place the infant bear into a position to suckle. Suckling takes place up to 14 times a day and lasts for periods of up to 30 minutes. Infant pandas open their eyes at 3 weeks and cannot move around on their own until 3-4 months and are weaned at about 46 weeks. A cub may remain with its mother up to 18 months (Massicot, 2001; Helin et al., 1999; Ward and Kynaston, 1995). Breeding these bears in captivity has been an incredible challenge. Giant pandas are notorious for their reluctance to breed in captivity (Helin et al., 1999; Milius, 2001; Ward and Kynaston, 1995). (Helin, 1999; Massicot, July 29, 2001; Ward and Kynaston, 1995)
It has been found from studying giant pandas in captivity that they have twins more often than previously thought--roughly half the time. The mother usually selects one and the other dies shortly after (Milius, 2001).
One giant panda lived to an age of about 34 years in captivity but that is uncommon. Normal max life expectancy in captivity is 26 years, surprisingly it is sometimes as much as 30 years. Lifespan in the wild is not known (Massicot, 2001; Helin et al., 1999; Word Wildlife Fund, 2001).
Unlike many other bears, A. melanoleuca does not hibernate. However, it will descend to lower elevations during the winter. Giant pandas do not build permanent dens but rather take shelter in trees and caves. They are primarily terrestrial, though good climbers and capable of swimming. This species is mainly solitary except for the breeding season. Mother pandas play with their cubs, but not just to appease the young. Some mothers have actually woken the infant to start to play (Helin et al., 1999; Malius, 2001; Massicot, 2001).
Communication and Perception
Giant pandas have an extremely strict energy budget. They travel little and are usually foraging when they do move. Giant pandas can spend 10-12 hours a day feeding. Bamboo, the main source of pandas' diet (over 99%) is a very poor nutritional source but present all year round. Only about 17% of the nutrients found in the leaves and stalks are extracted. These bears make a trade-off to have a plentiful, easily obtained food source but with low nutritional value. Giant pandas are well-known for their upright feeding position which leaves their forelegs free to handle the bamboo stalks. This species has several special characteristics related to eating bamboo. The extra digit on the panda's hand helps the panda in tearing the bamboo. This adaptation also allows increased dexterity while handling bamboo. The stomach walls are extremely muscular to help digest the woody diet; and the gut is covered with a thick layer of mucus to protect against splinters (Ward and Kynaston, 1995; Malius, 2001; Massicot, 2001).
Foods eaten include: bamboo stems and shoots, fruits of plant matter like kiwi, small mammals, fish and insects.
The black and white markings on giant pandas may have served as an anti-predator device in the past when the animals had predation pressure. The black and white pattern might have broken up the outline the bears presented, similar to the effect of zebra stripes. Also, in the past, when these pandas inhabited snowier areas, the white may have helped these bears blend into the surroundings. However, today giant pandas live in almost snow free areas. Fortunately no more natural predators exist for pandas today (Ward and Kynaston, 1995).
Giant panda population is closely tied to bamboo abundance and vice versa. Pandas help to distribute the bamboo seeds over areas. However, as panda numbers dwindle so does bamboo, making it harder for them to find food. Panda protected areas help to protect native ecosystems. (World Wildlife Fund, 2001)
Economic Importance for Humans: Positive
Giant pandas have been hunted for their fur. In recent years the pelt has been considered a valuable sleeping mat; it is comfortable but also believed to have supernatural markings which prevent ghosts and help predict the future through dreams. A panda skin is highly valued--in Japan it carries a price tag equal to $176,000. Giant pandas are also popular zoo exhibits attracting many people. (Ward and Kynaston, 1995)
- body parts are source of valuable material
- research and education
Economic Importance for Humans: Negative
There are no real negative economic impacts of giant pandas on humans, primarily because of their rarity. Panda preserves occupy land that might be considered valuable for harvesting, but the presence of pandas and their economic impact through tourism and preservation of ecosystems is likely to more than make up for any negative impact of reduced development.
Threats to this species include poaching, habitat loss, human encroachment, and trouble breeding in captivity. Tourism around giant pandas' habitat means more hotels, waste disposal systems, cars, buses, etc. and less room for pandas. Remaining bamboo forests in China only support about 1,000 wild pandas. Thirteen panda reserves totaling an area of 6,227 square km make up half of the remaining habitat. Also, the habitat has been broken into about 20 different separate patches. The pandas have trouble migrating from one site to another. Although efforts are showing improvement compared to earlier years, the zoo population of about 100 pandas worldwide has yet to produce enough cubs to maintain itself. The first successful panda breeding came in 1980 at the Mexico City Zoo, however the infant died after 8 days. In August 1999 another cub was born at San Diego Zoo and seems to be flourishing. To protect the population in the wild, the Chinese government has many anti-poaching laws. Some violators of these laws have even been sentenced to death. In October 1989 the first executions for trading panda skins took place. China has also stopped commercial logging. In 1986 an education campaign took place among 5,000 villages. It attempted to teach farmers and villagers about panda protection and discourage them from cutting bamboo. In 1992 the Chinese government approved the National Conservation Program for the Giant Panda and its Habitat. Since the 1980s many programs have been put in place attempting to save these great animals. Success to breed them in captivity is looking more hopeful but in the wild the numbers are still low. Recent Chinese studies have shown that panda populations have actually been stable for 20 years, but all this effort still may not be enough to save this species (Ward and Kynaston, 1995; World Wildlife Fund, 2001; Massicot, 2001)
There is an ancient Chinese story about how giant pandas got their unique markings. A young girl who was a friend of these bears died and the pandas were struck with sorrow. They wept at the funeral and rubbed their eyes with their arms. The dark color from their arm bands was wiped onto their eyes. The bears then hugged themselves and marked their ears, shoulders, hind legs and rumps, resulting in the pattern seen today. The classification of A. melanoleuca has been a difficult one for researchers to agree upon. Giant pandas have several characteristics in common, like bamboo eating, with red pandas, who have sometimes been considered to be members of the raccoon family (but currently are also classified with bears). Today it is widely accepted with little doubt that that giant pandas belong to the bear family (Ward and Kynaston, 1995).
LeeAnn Bies (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Cynthia Sims Parr (editor), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.
young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.
- bilateral symmetry
having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.
uses smells or other chemicals to communicate
active at dawn and dusk
- delayed implantation
in mammals, a condition in which a fertilized egg reaches the uterus but delays its implantation in the uterine lining, sometimes for several months.
humans benefit economically by promoting tourism that focuses on the appreciation of natural areas or animals. Ecotourism implies that there are existing programs that profit from the appreciation of natural areas or animals.
animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.
- female parental care
parental care is carried out by females
an animal that mainly eats leaves.
forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.
An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.
offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).
having the capacity to move from one place to another.
- native range
the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.
active during the night
found in the oriental region of the world. In other words, India and southeast Asia.
- seasonal breeding
breeding is confined to a particular season
reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female
uses touch to communicate
that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).
reproduction in which fertilization and development take place within the female body and the developing embryo derives nourishment from the female.
Ding-Zhen, L., F. Ji-Ming, S. Ru-Yong, Z. Gui-Quan, W. Rong-Ping. 1998. Behavioral comparison in individuals of different sexual ability in giant panda. Acta Zoologica Sinica, 44(1): 27-34.
Helin, S. 1999. The Mammalian of China. Beijing China: China Forestry Publishing House.
Massicot, P. July 29, 2001. "Animal Info-Giant Panda" (On-line). Accessed October 3, 2001 at .
Milius, S. Jan. 27, 2001. The lives of pandas. Science News, 159(4): 61(3).
Ward, P., S. Kynaston. 1995. Bears of the World. London: Blandford.
World Wildlife Fund, 2001. "Endangered Species: Panda Conservation" (On-line). Accessed (Date Unknown) at .