The panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca, lit. "black and white cat-foot"), also known as the giant panda to distinguish the unrelated red panda, is a bear native to central-western and south western China.
It is easily recognized by its large, distinctive black patches around
the eyes, over the ears, and across its round body. Though it belongs to
the order Carnivora, the panda's diet is 99% bamboo.
Pandas in the wild will occasionally eat other grasses, wild tubers, or
even meat in the form of birds, rodents or carrion. In captivity they
may receive honey, eggs, fish, yams, shrub leaves, oranges, or bananas along with specially prepared feed.
The giant panda lives in a few mountain ranges in central China, mainly in Sichuan province, but also in the Shaanxi and Gansu provinces. Due to farming, deforestation and other development, the panda has been driven out of the lowland areas where it once lived.
The panda is a conservation reliant endangered species. A 2007 report shows 239 pandas living in captivity inside China and another 27 outside the country. Wild population estimates vary; one estimate shows that there are about 1,590 individuals living in the wild, while a 2006 study via DNA analysis estimated that this figure could be as high as 2,000 to 3,000. Some reports also show that the number of pandas in the wild is on the rise. However, the IUCN does not believe there is enough certainty yet to reclassify the species from Endangered to Vulnerable.
While the dragon is seen within China as the country's national emblem,
internationally the panda appears at least as commonly. As such, it is
becoming widely used within China in international contexts, for example
the five Fuwa mascots of the Beijing Olympics.
The giant panda has a black-and-white coat. Adults measure around 1.2
to 1.8 meters (4 to 6 ft) long, including a tail of about 13 cm
(5.1 in), and 60 to 90 centimeters (1 ft 10 in to
2 ft 10 in) tall at the shoulder. Males can weigh up to 160 kilograms (350 lb). Females (generally 10–20% smaller than males) can weigh as little as 75 kg (170 lb) but can also weigh up to 125 kilograms (280 lb). Average adult weight is 100 to 115 kilograms (220 to 250 lb).
The giant panda has a body shape typical of bears. It has black fur
on its ears, eye patches, muzzle, legs, arms and shoulders. The rest of
the animal's coat is white. Although scientists do not know why these
unusual bears are black and white, some speculate that the bold coloring
provides effective camouflage in its shade-dappled snowy and rocky
surroundings. The giant panda's thick, wooly coat keeps it warm in the cool forests of its habitat. The giant panda has large molar teeth and strong jaw muscles for crushing tough bamboo.
The giant panda's paw has a "thumb" and five fingers; the "thumb" is actually a modified sesamoid bone, which helps the giant panda to hold bamboo while eating. Stephen Jay Gould discusses this feature in his book of essays on evolution and biology, The Panda's Thumb.
The giant panda's tail, measuring 10 to 15 centimeters (4 to 6 in),
is the second longest in the bear family. The longest belongs to the Sloth Bear.
The giant panda typically lives around 20 years in the wild and up to 30 years in captivity. The recorded age of the oldest captive giant panda, a female named Ming Ming, is 34.
In the wild, the giant panda is a terrestrial animal
and primarily spends its life roaming and feeding in the bamboo forests
of the Qinling Mountains and in the hilly Sichuan Province. Giant pandas are generally solitary,
and each adult has a defined territory and females are not tolerant of
other females in their range. Pandas communicate through vocalization
and scent marking such as clawing trees or spraying urine.
The giant panda is able to climb and take shelter in hollow trees or
rock crevices but does not establish permanent dens. For this reason,
pandas do not hibernate, which is similar to other subtropical mammals, and will instead move to elevations with warmer temperatures. Pandas rely primarily on spatial memory rather than visual memory.
Social encounters occur primarily during the brief breeding season in which pandas in proximity to one another will gather. After mating, the male leaves the female alone to raise the cub.
Though the panda is often assumed to be docile, it has been known to
attack humans, presumably out of irritation rather than predation.
Despite its taxonomic classification as a carnivoran, the giant panda's diet is primarily herbivorous, consisting almost exclusively of bamboo. However, the giant panda still has the digestive system of a carnivore, as well as carnivore-specific genes, and thus derives little energy and little protein from consumption of bamboo. Its ability to digest cellulose is ascribed to the microbes in its gut.
The giant panda is a "highly specialized" animal with "unique
adaptations", and has lived in bamboo forests for millions of years.
The average giant panda eats as much as 9 to 14 kg (20 to
30 pounds) of bamboo shoots a day. Because the giant panda consumes
a diet low in nutrition, it is important for it to keep its digestive
The limited energy input imposed on it by its diet has affected the
panda's behavior. The giant panda tends to limit its social interactions
and avoids steeply sloping terrain in order to limit its energy
Two of the panda's most distinctive features, its large size and its round face, are adaptations to its bamboo diet. Panda researcher Russell Ciochon observed that: “[much] like the vegetarian gorilla,
the low body surface area to body volume [of the giant panda] is
indicative of a lower metabolic rate. This lower metabolic rate and a
more sedentary lifestyle allow the giant panda to subsist on nutrient
poor resources such as bamboo.”
Similarly, the giant panda's round face is the result of powerful jaw
muscles, which attach from the top of the head to the jaw. Large molars crush and grind fibrous plant material.
Pandas eat any of twenty-five bamboo species in the wild, such as Fargesia dracocephala and Fargesia rufa.
Only a few bamboo species are widespread at the high altitudes pandas
now inhabit. Bamboo leaves contain the highest protein levels; stems
have less. Given this large diet, the giant panda can defecate up to 40 times a day.
Because of the synchronous flowering, death, and regeneration of all
bamboo within a species, the giant panda must have at least two
different species available in its range to avoid starvation. While
primarily herbivorous, the giant panda still retains decidedly ursine
teeth, and will eat meat, fish, and eggs when available. In captivity,
zoos typically maintain the giant panda's bamboo diet, though some will
provide specially-formulated biscuits or other dietary supplements.
The giant panda genome was sequenced in 2009 using a next-generation sequencing technology. Its genome contains 20 pairs of autosomes and one pair of sex chromosomes.
For many decades the precise taxonomic classification of the giant panda was under debate because it shares characteristicsraccoons. However, molecular studies suggest that the giant panda is a true bear and part of the Ursidae family, though it differentiated early in history from the main ursine stock. The giant panda's closest extant relative is the spectacled bear of South America. The giant panda has been referred to as a living fossil.
of both bears and
Despite the shared name, habitat type, and diet, as well as a unique enlarged bone called the pseudo thumb (which helps them grip the bamboo shoots they eat), the giant panda and red panda are only distantly related. Molecular studies have placed the red panda in its own family Ailuridae, and not under Ursidae.
Two subspecies of giant panda have been recognized on the basis of distinct cranial measurements, color patterns, and population genetics (Wan et al., 2005).
- The nominate subspecies Ailuropoda melanoleuca melanoleuca consists of most extant populations of panda. These animals are principally found in Sichuan and display the typical stark black and white contrasting colors.
- The Qinling Panda, Ailuropoda melanoleuca qinlingensis is restricted to the Qinling Mountains
in Shaanxi at elevations of 1300–3000 m. The typical black and
white pattern of Sichuan giant pandas is replaced with a dark brown
versus light brown pattern. The skull of A. m. qinlingensis is smaller than its relatives, and it has larger molars.
Uses and human interaction
In the past, pandas were thought to be rare and noble creatures – the mother of Emperor Wen of Han was buried with a panda skull in her vault. The grandson of Emperor Taizong of Tang is said to have given Japan two pandas and a sheet of panda skin as a sign of goodwill. Unlike many other animals in Ancient China,
pandas were rarely thought to have medical uses. The few known uses
include the Sichuan tribal peoples' use of panda urine to melt
accidentally swallowed needles, and the use of panda pelts to control menses as described in the Qin Dynasty encyclopedia Erya.
The creature named mo (貘) mentioned in some ancient books has been interpreted as giant panda. The dictionary Shuowen Jiezi (Eastern Han Dynasty) says that the mo, from Shu (Sichuan), is bear-like, but yellow-and-black, although the older Erya describes mo simply as a "white leopard". The interpretation of the legendary fierce creature pixiu (貔貅) as referring to the giant panda is also common.
During the reign of the Yongle Emperor (early 15th century), his relative from Kaifeng sent him a captured zouyu (騶虞), and another zouyu was sighted in Shandong. Zouyu is a legendary "righteous" animal, which, similarly to a qilin,
only appears during the rule of a benevolent and sincere monarch. It is
said to be fierce as a tiger, but gentle and strictly vegetarian, and
described in some books as a white tiger with black spots. Puzzled about
the real zoological identity of the creature captured during the Yongle
era, J.J.L. Duyvendak exclaims, "Can it possibly have been a Pandah?"
The comparative obscurity of the giant panda throughout most of
China's history is illustrated by the fact that, despite there being a
number of depictions of bears in Chinese art
starting from its most ancient times, and the bamboo being one of the
favorite subjects for Chinese painters, there are no known
pre-20th-century artistic representations of giant pandas.
The West first learned of the giant panda in 1869 because the French missionary Armand David
received a skin from a hunter on 11 March 1869. The first Westerner
known to have seen a living giant panda is the German zoologist Hugo Weigold, who purchased a cub in 1916. Kermit and Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., became the first Westerners to shoot a panda, on an expedition funded by the Field Museum of Natural History in the 1920s. In 1936, Ruth Harkness became the first Westerner to bring back a live giant panda, a cub named Su Lin who went to live at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. In 1938, five giant pandas were sent to London; these activities were later halted because of wars and for the next half of the century, the West knew little of pandas.
Loans of giant pandas to American and Japanese zoos formed an
important part of the diplomacy of the People's Republic of China (PRC)
in the 1970s, as it marked some of the first cultural exchanges between
the People's Republic and the West. This practice has been termed "Panda
By 1984, however, pandas were no longer given as gifts. Instead, the
PRC began to offer pandas to other nations only on 10-year loans, under
terms including a fee of up to US$1,000,000 per year and a provision
that any cubs born during the loan are the property of the PRC. Since
1998, due to a WWF lawsuit, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service only allows a U.S. zoo to import a panda if the zoo can ensure that the PRC will channel more than half of its loan fee into conservation efforts for the giant panda and its habitat.
In May 2005, the People's Republic of China offered a breeding pair to Taiwan. The issue became embroiled in cross-Strait relations—both
over the underlying symbolism, and over technical issues such as
whether the transfer would be considered "domestic" or "international,"
or whether any true conservation purpose would be served by the
exchange. A contest in 2006 to name the pandas was held in the mainland, resulting in the politically charged names Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan (from tuanyuan, meaning "reunion", i.e. "reunification"). PRC's offer was initially rejected by President Chen of Taiwan. However when Ma Ying-jeou assumed the presidency in 2008 the offer was accepted, and the pandas arrived in December of that year.
The giant panda is an endangered species, threatened by continued habitat loss and by a very low birthrate, both in the wild and in captivity.
The giant panda has been a target for poaching by locals since
ancient times and by foreigners since it was introduced to the West.
Starting in the 1930s, foreigners were unable to poach giant pandas in
China because of the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Chinese Civil War,
but pandas remained a source of soft furs for the locals. The
population boom in China after 1949 created stress on the pandas'
habitat, and the subsequent famines led to the increased hunting of
wildlife, including pandas. During the Cultural Revolution, all studies and conservation activities on the pandas were stopped. After the Chinese economic reform, demand for panda skins from Hong Kong and Japan led to illegal poaching for the black market, acts generally ignored by the local officials at the time.
Though the Wolong National Nature Reserve
was set up by the PRC government in 1958 to save the declining panda
population, few advances in the conservation of pandas were made, due to
inexperience and insufficient knowledge of ecology. Many believed that
the best way to save the pandas was to cage them. As a result, pandas
were caged at any sign of decline, and suffered from terrible
conditions. Because of pollution and destruction of their natural
habitat, along with segregation due to caging, reproduction of wild
pandas was severely limited. In the 1990s, however, several laws
(including gun control and the removal of resident humans from the
reserves) helped the chances of survival for pandas. With these renewed
efforts and improved conservation methods, wild pandas have started to
increase in numbers in some areas, even though they still are classified
as a rare species.
In 2006, scientists reported that the number of pandas living in the
wild may have been underestimated at about 1,000. Previous population
surveys had used conventional methods to estimate the size of the wild
panda population, but using a new method that analyzes DNA from panda droppings, scientists believe that the wild panda population may be as large as 3,000.
Although the species is still endangered, it is thought that the
conservation efforts are working. In 2006, there were 40 panda reserves
in China, compared to just 13 reserves two decades ago.
The giant panda is among the world's most adored and protected rare
animals, and is one of the few in the world whose natural inhabitant
status was able to gain a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation. The Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries, located in the southwest Sichuan province and covering seven natural reserves, were inscribed onto the World Heritage List in 2006.
Not all conservationists agree that the money spent on conserving pandas is money well spent. Chris Packham has argued that breeding pandas in captivity is "pointless" because "there is not enough habitat left to sustain them". Packham argues that the money spent on pandas would be better spent elsewhere,
and has said that he would "eat the last panda if I could have all the
money we have spent on panda conservation put back on the table for me
to do more sensible things with," though he has apologized for upsetting people who like pandas. He points out that "The panda is possibly one of the grossest wastes of conservation money in the last half century."
In 2012, Earthwatch Institute,
a global non-profit that teams volunteers with scientists to conduct
important environmental research, launched a program called "On the
Trail of Giant Panda." This program, based in the Wolong National Nature
Reserve, allows volunteers to work up close with pandas cared for in
captivity, and help them adapt to life in the wild, so that they may
breed, and live longer and healthier lives.[65
Initially the primary method of breeding giant pandas in captivity was by artificial insemination, as they seemed to lose their interest in mating once they were captured. This led some scientists to try extreme methods such as showing them videos of giant pandas mating and giving the males Viagra.
Only recently have researchers started having success with captive
breeding programs, and they have now determined that giant pandas have
comparable breeding to some populations of the American black bear, a thriving bear family. The current reproductive rate is considered one young every two years.
Giant pandas reach sexual maturity between the ages of four and eight, and may be reproductive until age 20. The mating season is between March and May, when a female goes into her estrous cycle which lasts for two or three days and only occurs once a year. When mating, the female is in a crouching, head-down position as the male mounts her from behind. Copulation
time is short, ranging from thirty seconds to five minutes, but the
male may mount her repeatedly to ensure successful fertilization. The gestation period ranges from 95 to 160 days. Cubs weigh only 90 to 130 grams (3.2 to 4.6 ounces), which is about 1/800 of the mother's weight.
If twins are born, usually only one survives in the wild. The mother
will select the stronger of the cubs, and the weaker will die. It is
thought that the mother cannot produce enough milk for two cubs since
she does not store fat. The father has no part in helping raise the cub.
When the cub is first born, it is pink, blind, and toothless. A giant panda cub is also extremely small ,
and it is difficult for the mother to protect it because of the baby's
size. It nurses from its mother's breast 6 to 14 times a day for up to
30 minutes at a time. For three to four hours, the mother may leave the
den to feed, which leaves the cub defenseless. One to two weeks after
birth, the cub's skin turns gray where its hair will eventually become
black. A slight pink color may appear on cub's fur, as a result of a chemical reaction between the fur and its mother's saliva.
A month after birth, the color pattern of the cub's fur is fully
developed. A cub's fur is very soft and coarsens with age. The cub
begins to crawl at 75 to 80 days;
mothers play with their cubs by rolling and wrestling with them. The
cubs are able to eat small quantities of bamboo after six months,
though mother's milk remains the primary food source for most of the
first year. Giant panda cubs weigh 45 kg (100 pounds) at one
year, and live with their mothers until they are 18 months to two years
old. The interval between births in the wild is generally two years.
In July 2009, Chinese scientists confirmed the birth of the first cub
to be successfully conceived through artificial insemination using
frozen sperm. The cub was born at 07:41 on 23 July that year in Sichuan as the third cub of You You, an 11-year-old. The technique for freezing the sperm in liquid nitrogen
was first developed in 1980 and the first birth was hailed as a
solution to the problem of lessening giant panda semen availability
which had led to in-breeding.
It has been suggested that panda semen, which can be frozen for
decades, could be shared between different zoos to save the species. It is expected that zoos in destinations such as San Diego in the United States and Mexico City will now be able to provide their own semen to inseminate more giant pandas.
Attempts have also been made to reproduce giant pandas by interspecific pregnancy
by implanting cloned panda embryos into the uterus of an animal of
another species. This has resulted in panda fetuses, but no live births.
There is no conclusive explanation of the origin of the word "panda". The closest candidate is the Nepali word ponya,
possibly referring to the adapted wrist bone. The Western world
originally applied this name to the red panda. Until 1901, when it was
erroneously stated that it was related to the red panda, the giant panda
was known as "mottled bear" (Ailuropus melanoleucus) or "particolored bear".
In most encyclopedic sources, the name "panda" or "common panda" originally referred to the lesser-known red panda, thus necessitating the inclusion of "giant" and "lesser/red" prefixes in front of the names. Even in 2010, the Encyclopædia Britannica still used "giant panda" or "panda bear" for the bear and simply "panda" for the Ailuridae, despite the popular usage of the word "panda".
Since the earliest collection of Chinese writings, the Chinese
language has given the bear 20 different names, such as 花熊 (huā xióng)
"spotted bear" and 竹熊 (zhú xióng) "bamboo bear".
The most popular names in China today are 大熊貓 (dà xióng māo), literally
"large bear cat", or just 熊貓 (xióng māo), "bear cat". The name may have
been inspired by the giant panda's eyes, which have pupils that are
cat-like vertical slits – unlike other bear species, which have round pupils.
the popular name for panda is the inverted 貓熊 (māo xióng) "cat bear,"
even though many encyclopedia and dictionaries in Taiwan still use "bear
cat" as the correct name. Some linguists argue that, in this
construction, "bear" instead of "cat" is the base noun, making this name
more grammatically and logically correct, which may have led to the
popular choice despite official writings.
Pandas have been kept in zoos as early as the Western Han Dynasty in China, where the writer Sima Xiangru notes that the panda was the most treasured animal in the emperor's garden of exotic animals in the capital Chang'an (present Xi'an). Not until the 1950s were pandas again recorded to have been exhibited in China's zoos.
Chi Chi at the London Zoo became very popular. This influenced the World Wildlife Fund to use a panda as its symbol.
A 2006 New York Times article
outlined the economics of keeping pandas, which costs five times more
than that of the next most expensive animal, an elephant. American zoos
generally pay the Chinese government $1 million a year in fees, as
part of a typical ten-year contract. San Diego's contract with China was
to expire in 2008 but got a five-year extension at about half of the
previous yearly cost. The last contract, with the Memphis Zoo in Memphis, Tennessee, ends in 2013.