Giant panda facts for kids

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Giant panda
A giant panda at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington, D.C.
Conservation status
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Family: Ursidae
Genus: Ailuropoda
Binomial name
Ailuropoda melanoleuca
(David, 1869)
Giant panda range

The giant panda, Ailuropoda melanoleuca, is a bear. It lives in south central China.

Although it belongs to the order Carnivora, the panda's diet is 99% bamboo. Pandas in the wild occasionally eat other grasses, wild tubers, or even meat in the form of birds, rodents or carrion. In captivity, they may get honey, eggs, fish, yams, shrub leaves, oranges, or bananas along with specially prepared food.

The giant panda lives in a few mountain ranges in central China, mainly in Sichuan province, but also in the Shaanxi and Gansu provinces. As a result of farming, deforestation and other development, the panda has been driven out of the lowland areas where it once lived.

Description

The giant panda has a black-and-white coat. Adults measure around 1.2 to 1.8 m (4 to 6 ft) long, including a tail of about 13 cm (5.1 in), and 60 to 90 cm (2.0 to 3.0 ft) tall at the shoulder. Males can weigh up to 160 kg (350 lb). Females (generally 10–20% smaller than males) can weigh as little as 75 kg (165 lb), but can also weigh up to 125 kg (276 lb). Average adult weight is 100 to 115 kg (220 to 254 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, speculation suggests that the bold coloring provides effective camouflage in their shade-dappled snowy and rocky habitat. The giant panda's thick, wooly coat keeps it warm in the cool forests of its habitat. It has large molar teeth and strong jaw-muscles for crushing tough bamboo.

Giant panda Left hand Bone 2
Bones of the left forelimb of a giant panda at the National Museum of Nature and Science, Tokyo, Japan.

The giant panda's paw has a "thumb" and five fingers; the "thumb" - actually a modified sesamoid bone - helps it 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 cm (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 oldest captive, a female named Ming Ming, had a recorded age of 34.

Behavior

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 a female is not tolerant of other females in her range. Pandas communicate through vocalization and scent marking such as clawing trees or spraying urine. They are able to climb and take shelter in hollow trees or rock crevices, but do 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 aggression.

Diet

Pandas eating bamboo Washington Zoo
Pandas eating bamboo at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.

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 lb) of bamboo shoots a day. Given this large diet, the giant panda can defecate up to 40 times a day. Because it consumes a diet low in nutrition, it is important for it to keep its digestive tract full. 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 to limit its energy expenditures.

Two of the panda's most distinctive features, its large size and round face, are adaptations to its bamboo diet. Panda researcher Russell Ciochon observed: “[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 allows 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 25 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.

Quinlingpandabearr
The Qinling panda has a light-brown and white pattern

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.

Kinds of giant pandas

There are two kinds of giant panda. They both live in China. The best known is the black and white panda. Its scientific name is Ailuropoda melanoleuca melanoleuca.

The other giant panda has dark brown and light brown fur. Its skull is smaller than the other giant panda. It has larger molars. This panda lives only in the Qinling Mountains. Its scientific name is Ailuropoda melanoleuca qinlingensis.

Baby pandas

Chengdu-pandas-d18
A giant panda cub. At birth, the giant panda typically weighs 100 to 200 grams (3+12 to 7 oz) and measures 15 to 17 centimeters (6 to 7 in) long.

Giant pandas are ready to have babies (cubs) when they are between the ages of four and eight years. They may be able to have babies until about age 20. Female pandas are ready to have a baby only once a year. This is in the springtime. There are only two to three days she is ready for a baby. Calls and scents bring the males and female pandas to each other.

Female pandas may give birth to two young. Usually only one lives. Giant panda cubs may stay with their mothers for up to three years. Then they leave her for a life of their own.

Giant pandas and people

Today, the giant panda is a symbol for China. It is protected by the Chinese government. Killing a giant panda is a crime. The giant panda may become extinct. It will die out if the forests of bamboo continue to disappear.

People outside of eastern Asia did not know about the giant panda until 1869. The first "Westerner" to see a live panda was a German zoologist in 1916. In 1936, Ruth Harkness became the first Westerner to bring a live giant panda out of China. It was a cub (baby panda) named Su-Lin. The cub was taken to live at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago.

In the 1970s, China began showing giant pandas in zoos in the United States and Japan as a type of diplomacy. This happened until 1984, when China changed how this was done. Starting in 1984, China would allow zoos to keep the giant pandas for 10 years, but the zoo would have to pay China up to $1,000,000 each year. Also, the zoo would have to agree that any cubs born would belong to China.

Zoos

Atlanta Zoo Panda
One of three giant pandas at the Atlanta Zoo
Panda eating Bamboo
Hua Mei, the baby panda born at the San Diego Zoo in 1999

14 cities outside China have zoos with giant pandas.

North America
Europe
Asia

The Adelaide Zoo in Adelaide, Australia received two giant pandas in 2009.

Endangered animal

Giant Pandas having a snack
Pandas eating bamboo.

The giant panda is an endangered species. It may become extinct. In 2013, it was estimated that there were less than 2,500 mature giant pandas living in the wild. Illegal hunting is no longer a problem. Hunting for pandas is a crime. The penalties are harsh if you hunt pandas.

The greatest threat to survival is the loss of living areas. People are ruining the areas where pandas live. They are cutting down trees. They are building farms. Groups of pandas are forced to live in small areas. They are isolated. They cannot mix other panda groups.

Giant pandas eat bamboo. Sometimes the bamboo dies off. At one time, pandas could move to an area where bamboo was still growing. Moving has become more and more difficult. People are living and working in panda areas. Pandas cannot move about as freely as they once did.

Helping pandas to survive

China set up the first giant panda nature reserve in 1963. Other nature reserves were also set up. There were 40 giant panda reserves in 2006.

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