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Giant Panda

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


The giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca "black-and-white cat-foot") is a mammal classified in the bear family, Ursidae, native to central and southern China.[1]

The panda's main food is bamboo, but they may eat other foods such as honey, eggs, fish, and yams. Easily recognizable through its large, distinctive black patches around the eyes, ears and on its rotund body, the giant panda is an endangered animal: an estimated 1,600 pandas live in the wild and some 188 were reported to live in captivity at the end of 2005. However, reports show that the panda numbers in the wild are on the rise.[2][3]

General information

The giant panda has a very distinctive black-and-white coat, and adults measure around 1.5m long and around 75cm tall at the shoulder. Males can weigh up to 115 kg (253 pounds). Females are generally smaller than males, and can occasionally weigh up to 100 kg (220 pounds). Giant pandas live in mountainous regions, such as Sichuan, Gansu, Shaanxi, and Tibet. While the Chinese dragon has been historically a national emblem for China, since the latter half of the 20th century, the panda has also become an informal national emblem for China, and its image is found on many Chinese gold coins.

Despite being taxonomically a carnivore, the panda has a diet that is overwhelmingly herbivorous. The giant panda eats shoots and leaves, almost exclusively bamboo. This is an evolutionarily recent adaptation, or perhaps just a very awkward one; pandas lack the proper enzymes to digest bamboo efficiently, and thus derive little energy and little protein from it.

They retain decidedly ursine teeth, and will readily eat meat, fish, and eggs when available, but their sluggish speeds, a consequence of their mainly bamboo diet, ensure that these more energy-rich foods are seldom available to them outside of captivity. In captivity, zoos typically maintain the pandas' bamboo diet, though some will provide specially formulated biscuits or other dietary supplements.

Unlike most bears but like most subtropical mammals, the giant panda does not hibernate.

For many decades the precise taxonomic classification of the panda was under debate as both the giant panda and the distantly related red panda share characteristics of both bears and raccoons. However, genetic testing suggests that giant pandas are true bears and part of the Ursidae family, though they differentiated early in history from the main ursine stock. The giant panda's closest bear relative is the Spectacled Bear of South America. (Disagreement remains about whether or not the red panda belongs in Ursidae; the raccoon family, Procyonidae; or in its own family, Ailuridae.)

Giant pandas are an endangered species, threatened by continued habitat loss and by a very low birthrate, both in the wild and in captivity. Poaching is uncommon; killing a panda was punishable in China by death until a 1997 law changed the penalty to 20 years imprisonment.

The giant panda has an unusual paw, with a "thumb" and five fingers; the "thumb" is actually a modified sesamoid bone, which helps the panda to hold the bamboo while eating. Stephen Jay Gould wrote an essay about this, then used the title The Panda's Thumb for a book of essays concerned with evolution and intelligent design. The giant panda has a short tail, approximately 15 cm long.

The giant panda has long been a favourite of the public, at least partly on account of the fact that the species has an appealing baby-like cuteness that makes it seem to resemble a living teddy bear. The fact that it is usually depicted reclining peacefully eating bamboo, as opposed to hunting, also adds to its image of innocence. Though the giant panda is often assumed docile because of their cuteness, they have been known to attack humans, usually assumed to be out of irritation rather than predatory behavior.

Giant pandas can usually live to be 20-30 years old while living in captivity.


Uses and human interaction

Unlike many other animals in ancient China, pandas were rarely thought to have medical uses. The only considered medical use was probably of panda urine, to melt needles accidentally swallowed in the throat. 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 tomb. Emperor Taizong of Tang was said to have given Japan two pandas and a sheet of panda skin as a sign of goodwill. Panda skin was considered a sign of courage afterwards, and thus pandas became a target for poachers.

The giant panda was first made known to the West in 1869 by the French missionary Armand David, who 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 foreigners 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. These activities were halted in 1937 because of wars; and for the next half of the century, the West knew little of the pandas.

Gao Gao, an adult male giant panda at San Diego Zoo
Gao Gao, an adult male giant panda at San Diego Zoo

Loans of giant pandas to American and Japanese zoos formed an important part of the diplomacy of the People's Republic of China in the 1970s as it marked some of the first cultural exchanges between the PRC and the West. This practice has been termed "Panda Diplomacy".

By the year 1984, however, pandas were no longer used as agents of diplomacy. Instead, China began to offer pandas to other nations only on 10-year loans. The standard loan terms include 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 People's Republic of China. Since 1998, due to a WWF lawsuit, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service only allows a U.S. zoo to import a panda if the zoo can ensure that China will channel more than half of its loan fee into conservation efforts for wild pandas and their habitat.

By 2005, political tensions had eased between mainland China (People's Republic of China) and Taiwan (Republic of China), causing the mainland to suggest giving Taiwan two pandas as a diplomatic gift. This proposed gift was met by polarized opinions from Taiwan, and in the end Taiwan didn't accept the pandas.


Pandas have been a target for poaching, by locals since ancient times and by foreigners since they were introduced to the West. Starting in the 1930s, foreigners were unable to poach 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, demands for panda skin 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 Reserve was set up by the PRC government in 1958 to save the declining pandas, few advances in the conservation of pandas were made, due to inexperience and insufficient knowledge in ecology. Many believed that the best way to save the pandas was to cage them, and as a result, the pandas were caged for any sign of decline, and they 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 controls and moving residents out of the reserves) helped the chances of survival for pandas. With the ensued 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 hi-tech method that analyzes DNA from panda droppings, scientists believed that the wild panda population may be as big as 3,000. Although the species is still endangered, it is thought that the conservation efforts are working. As of 2006, there were 40 panda reserves in China, compared to just 13 reserves two decades ago.[4]

Giant pandas are 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 grant a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation. The Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries, located in the southwest Sichuan province and covering 7 natural reserves, was inscribed onto the World Heritage List in 2006.[5][6]


The baby giant panda Su Lin atop a tree in San Diego Zoo
The baby giant panda Su Lin atop a tree in San Diego Zoo

Contrary to popular belief, Giant pandas do not reproduce slowly. Recent studies have shown that wild pandas reproduce as well as North American brown bears.[7] A female panda may have 5-6 cubs in a lifetime, on average. Growth is slow and pandas may not reach sexual maturity until they are five to seven years old. The mating season usually takes place from mid-March to mid-May. During this time, two to five males can compete for one female; the male with the highest rank gets the female. When mating, the female is in a crouching, head-down position as the male mounts from behind. Copulation time is short, ranging from thirty seconds to five minutes, but the male may mount repeatedly to ensure successful fertilization.

The whole gestation period ranges from 83 to 163 days, with 135 days being the average. Baby pandas weigh only 90 to 130 grams (3.2 to 4.6 ounces), which is about 1/900th of the mother’s weight. Usually, the female panda gives birth to one or two panda cubs. Since baby pandas are born very small and helpless, they need the mother’s undivided attention, so she is able to care for only one of her cubs. She usually abandons one of her cubs, and it dies soon after birth. At this time, scientists do not know how the female chooses which cub to raise, and this is a topic of ongoing research.

The father has no part in helping with raising the cub. When the cub is first born, it is pink, naked and blind. It nurses from its mother's breast 6–14 times a day for up to 30 minutes each time. For three to four hours, the mother might leave the den to feed, which leaves the panda 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 the panda'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 soft as silk and coarsens with age. The cub begins to crawl at 75 to 90 days and the 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 (99.2 pounds) at one year and live with their mother until they are 18 months to two years old. The interval between births in the wild is generally two years.

Breeders and biologists often experience difficulty in inducing captive pandas to mate, threatening their already diminished population. This problem may stem from the captive bears' lack of experience. In an attempt to remedy this, some keepers in China and Thailand have shown their subjects videos containing footage of mating pandas. In some cases, the bears have been sufficiently stimulated from the videos to engage in reproductive activity. It is not likely that the animals actually learn mating behaviors from the video; rather, scientists believe that hearing the associated sounds has a stimulating effect on the bears exposed to it.


The name "panda" originates with a Himalayan language, possibly Nepalese. And as used in the West it was originally applied to the red panda, to which the giant panda was thought to be related. Until its relation to the red panda was discovered in 1901, the giant panda was known as Mottled Bear (Ailuropus melanoleucus) or Particolored Bear.

In Chinese, the giant panda is called the "large bear cat" (Simplified Chinese: 大熊猫, Traditional Chinese: 大熊貓; pinyin: Dàxióngmāo), or "cat bear" (Simplified Chinese: 猫熊, Traditional Chinese: 貓熊; pinyin: Māoxióng), a term usually used only in Taiwan.

Most bears' eyes have round pupils. The exception is the giant panda, whose pupils are vertical slits, like cats' eyes. It is these unusual eyes that inspired the Chinese to call the panda the "giant bear cat".


Two subspecies of giant panda have been recognized on the basis of distinct cranial measurements, color patterns, and population genetics (Wan et al., 2005).

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.

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 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.

Pandas in zoos

Panda in Moscow Zoo on 1964 Soviet Union 2 kopeks postal stamp
Panda in Moscow Zoo on 1964 Soviet Union 2 kopeks postal stamp
Giant panda in Vienna’s zoo Tiergarten Schönbrunn
Giant panda in Vienna’s zoo Tiergarten Schönbrunn

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 must pay the Chinese government $2 million a year in fees, part of what is typically a ten-year contract. San Diego's contract with China is the first to expire, in 2008. The last contract, in Memphis, ends in 2013.

North America

As of 2005, five major North American zoos have giant pandas:

  • San Diego Zoo, San Diego, California - home of Bai Yun (F), Gao Gao (M), Mei Sheng (M), and a female cub named Su Lin
  • US National Zoo, Washington, D.C. - home of Mei Xiang(F), Tian Tian(M), and a male cub named Tai Shan
  • Zoo Atlanta, Atlanta, Georgia - home of Lun Lun(F), Yang Yang(M) and an unnamed female cub born September 6, 2006
  • Memphis Zoo, Memphis, Tennessee - home of Ya Ya (F) and Le Le
  • Chapultepec Zoo, Mexico City, Mexico - home of Shuan Shuan, Xin Xin and Xi Hua, all females

On July 9, 2005, a male giant panda cub was born at the National Zoo in Washington to mother Mei Xiang and father Tian Tian through artificial insemination; it was the first surviving cub birth in the zoo's history. For the first time in the nation's history, a public vote chose this panda's name. Following Chinese tradition, his name Tai Shan (tie-SHON) was announced when he turned 100 days old.

A female cub, Su Lin, was born on August 2, 2005, to the female Bai Yun and male Gao Gao at the San Diego Zoo. Her name was also chosen by a public online poll. Bai Yun's two previous cubs were the first two giant pandas to survive past infancy in the United States (the first surviving cubs in North America were bred in the Chapultepec Zoo). The first, a female named Hua Mei, was fathered by Shi Shi via artificial insemination and was born on August 21, 1999. She returned to China in February 2004, where she has already given birth to 2 sets of twins, males in 2004 (named Hua Ling and Mei Ling) and one male/one female in 2005. Both sets of twins are doing fine to date. Bai Yun's second cub, a male named Mei Sheng, was the product of natural mating with Gao Gao and was born on August 19, 2003. Su Lin was also fathered by Gao Gao via natural mating.

On September 6, 2006 Zoo Atlanta announced the birth of a cub to Lun Lun and Yang Yang[8] after a record 35-hour labor.[9]


Two zoos in Europe show giant pandas:

  • Zoologischer Garten Berlin, Berlin, Germany - home of Bao Bao, age 27, the oldest panda living in captivity; he has been in Berlin for 25 years and has never reproduced.
  • Tiergarten Schönbrunn, Vienna, Austria - home to two pandas (a male and a female) born in Wolong, China in 2000.

London, Toronto, Madrid, and Paris no longer have pandas, although Madrid is exploring the possibility of obtaining pandas in the future.


  • Chiang Mai Zoo, northern Thailand - home to Chuang Chuang (M) and Lin Hui (F). Much to the joy of the public, the two have recently been observed mating and it is hoped that cubs will be produced from the union.
  • Ocean Park, Hong Kong - home to Jia Jia (F) and An An (M).

Pandas in Japan have double names: a Japanese name and a Chinese name. Three zoos in Japan show giant pandas:

  • Ueno Zoo, Tokyo - home of Ling Ling (M), he is the only panda with "Japanese citizenship".
  • Oji Zoo, Kobe, Hyogo - home of Kou Kou (M), Tan Tan (F)
  • Adventure World, Shirahama, Wakayama - Ei Mei (M), Mei Mei (F), Rau Hin (F), Ryu Hin and Syu Hin (male twins), and Kou Hin (M). Yu Hin (M) went to China in 2004.

On Tuesday, August 8th, 2006 a giant panda in Beijing, China gave birth to the heaviest cub born in captivity after the longest period in labor. The cub weighed just 218 grams (half a pound), but was still the heaviest panda ever born in captivity, where most cubs are born at between 83 and 190 grams. The whole process lasted about 34 hours and was the longest in the history of panda reproduction.

Another Panda in Beijing named Gu Gu recently came to fame at there when he bit a drunken man who had jumped into his exhibit and tried to hug him.

Pandas in popular culture

Panda Express logo.

Pandas are a popular animal in eastern and western culture. In part due to their widely recognized cuteness, Pandas have often appeared in television programs, cartoons, and picture-books, while their images have graced all manner of consumer products. For example:

  • Panda Express is the name of an American fast food chain that serves American Chinese cuisine. The chain's logo features a chubby, stylized panda. Some franchises give donations to panda preservation groups. Other Americanized Chinese restaurants may have names such as Panda Garden and Panda Palace.
  • The title of Lynne Truss's book, Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, is, among other things, a reference to a joke on poor punctuation:
WWF (World Wide Fund For Nature) logo.
A panda walks into a cafe and orders a sandwich. After the panda has eaten his meal, he takes out a gun and shoots several holes in the ceiling. As the panda begins to leave, the waiter cries out, "What was that for?" in regard to the shootings. The panda tosses a wildlife guide to the waiter. The waiter reads the guide, and it says, "Panda. Black-and-white mammal native to China. Eats, shoots, and leaves."
  • The World Wildlife Fund logotype is a stylized panda.
  • A panda named Jing Jing is one of the Friendlies, the mascots for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.
  • 'Panda' is a playable character in the arcade fighting game Tekken. Within the game storyline, Panda is a pet of the character Ling Xiaoyu.
  • Tarepanda is a popular mascot cartoon for the San-X company in Japan that produces stationary and office supplies. The name means "lazy panda".
  • In the manga and anime series Ranma ½, Ranma's father Genma transforms into a giant, mute panda when he is doused in cold water. He retains his human mind, though, and is capable of communicating with signs.
  • The Panda is the informal national animal of China.
  • Yoga instructor Carl Dreher has developed a style of yoga he calls Panda-Yoga, based on the movements of the Panda.
  • A panda who learns martial arts is the central character in the forthcoming animated film Kung Fu Panda (2008), voiced by Jack Black.
  • In the video game expansion pack "The Frozen Throne" for Warcraft 3, an obtainable Neutral Hero is the Pandaren Brewmaster who is a member of a race that resembles giant pandas.
  • The birth of a baby panda is a central plot point of the movie Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004).
  • Andy Panda was a series of animated cartoon short subjects produced by Walter Lantz and released by Universal Pictures from 1939 to 1949.
  • Panda is a mexican rock band.
  • A panda bear is a secret unlockable character in the Nintendo 64 game, 1080° Snowboarding.

See also

  • Qinling Panda
  • Red Panda


  1. ^ Global Species Programme – Giant panda
  2. ^ Giant panda gives birth to giant cub
  3. ^ National Geographic
  4. ^ Hope for future of giant panda BBC News
  5. ^ Pandas gain world heritage status BBC News
  6. ^ Panda sanctuaries now World Heritage sites United Press International
  7. ^ Warren, Lynn (July, 2006). What's black and white and adored all over—and can cost a zoo more than three million dollars a year?. Retrieved on [[2006-10-16]].
  8. ^ Zoo Atlanta Panda Gives Birth, Zoo Atlanta website. Accessed September 6, 2006.
  9. ^ Zoo Atlanta joins elite club after rare panda birth, Oxford Press website. Accessed September 19.


  • Bear Specialist Group (1996). Ailuropoda melanoleuca. 2006 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. IUCN 2006. Retrieved on 10 May 2006. Listed as Endangered (EN B1+2c, C2a v2.3)
  • Schaller, George B. The Last Panda. Chicago. University of Chicago Press, 1993.
  • Catton, Chris Pandas. Christopher Helm, 1990.
  • Wan, Q.-H., H. Wu, and S.-G. Fang. 2005. A new subspecies of giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) from Shaanxi, China. Journal of Mammalogy 86: 397–402.
  • Panda Facts At a Glance
  • Associated Press (via CNN) 2006. Article link
  • Goodman, Brenda (February 12, 2006). Pandas Eat Up Much of Zoos' Budgets. The New York Times
  • Warren, Lynne. Panda, Inc. National Geographic July 2006. (about Mei Xiang, Tai Shan and the Wolong Panda Research Facility in Chengdu China).
  • Friends of the National Zoo. Panda Cam : a nation watches Tai Shan the panda cub grow. Fireside Books, New York; 2006.
  • Ryder, Joanne. Little panda : the world welcomes Hua Mei at the San Diego Zoo. Simon & Schuster, New York; 2001.
  • AFP (via Discovery Channel)Panda Numbers Exceed Expectations

External links

Wikimedia Commons has media related to:
Giant Panda
Wikispecies has information related to:
Ailuropoda melanoleuca
  • GLOBIO's Glossopedia; Giant Panda - Children's science and nature encyclopedia
  • Panda Pioneer: the release of the first captive-bred panda 'Xiang Xiang' in 2006
  • Video: Entering the Baby Giant Panda Nursery
  • WWF - environmental conservation organization
  • Pandas Unlimited
  • Giant Panda Species Survival Plan
  • Pandas International - panda conservation group
  • Information about pandas
  • Smithsonian National Zoo Live Panda Cams - (Baby Panda Tai Shan and his mother Mei Xiang)
  • San Diego Zoo Live Panda Cam
  • Photos of Giant Pandas in Beijing Zoo
  • Funny Video of Baby Panda and Mother
  • Information from Animal Diversity
  • Zoo atlanta Panada-Cam of Lun Lun and baby panda cub
  • Pandas Are Precious - a 5 year olds website to help save the Giant Pandas

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