The giant panda is a national treasure in China and is therefore protected by law. This unique bear has long been revered by the Chinese and can be found in Chinese art dating back thousands of years. The Chinese call their beloved pandas "large bear-cats." People outside of China have been fascinated by giant pandas since they were first described by French Missionary Pere Armand David in 1869. Now, more than 100 years later, the worldwide love for pandas has been combined with international efforts to keep them from becoming extinct.
Scientists aren't exactly sure. One theory is that pandas developed the contrasting black and white colors over time so they would stand out in the forest and be able to find each other to mate. Another idea is that the broad blockings of contrasting color may serve to camouflage the panda in the bamboo or treetops. Anyone who's tried to spot one of our panda cubs up in the tree napping can verify how difficult that can be! Scientists have yet to confirm what the real purpose of the panda's coloration is. Each panda’s markings are slightly different from one another. There is also a rare brown and white variation of the giant panda.
For years scientists have wondered whether pandas are bears, raccoons, or in a group all their own. Through studying the genetic code (DNA) in pandas’ cells, scientists have confirmed the panda's relationship with bears. Giant pandas are similar to other bears in their general looks, the way they walk and climb, and their skull characteristics. It's important to know that pandas are bears, because the more we know about pandas, the better we can help them reproduce and survive.
A panda newborn is all white.
Giant pandas are only about the size of a stick of butter at birth, and they're hairless and helpless. The panda mother gives great care to her tiny cub, usually cradling it in one paw and holding it close to her chest. For several days after birth, the mother does not leave the den, not even to eat or drink!
The cub's eyes open at 50 to 60 days of age and by 10 weeks the cub begins to crawl. Its teeth appear by the time it is 14 weeks old and mother and cub spend much less time using their den. By 21 weeks, the cub is able to walk pretty well. At this time, the cub starts to play with its mother and at seven to 9 months of age it starts attempting to eat bamboo. The cub continues to nurse until about 18 months of age. At this time, the mother is ready to send the cub off on its own so she can prepare for her next cub.
Yet despite the attention they receive from their mothers, many young pandas do not survive. Through captive propagation programs in China and other zoos around the world, we are learning more about the care of panda cubs and how to help them reach adulthood.
Bamboo is the most important plant in a giant panda's life. Pandas live in cold and rainy bamboo forests high in the mountains of western China. They spend at least 12 hours each day eating bamboo. Because bamboo is so low in nutrients, pandas eat as much as 84 pounds (38 kilograms) of it each day. Pandas grasp bamboo stalks with their five fingers and a special wristbone, then use their teeth to peel off the tough outer layers to reveal the soft inner tissue. Strong jaw bones and cheek muscles help pandas crush and chew the thick stalks with their flattened back teeth. Bamboo leaves are also on the menu, as pandas strip them off the stalks, wad them up, and swallow them. Giant pandas have also been known to eat grasses, bulbs, fruits, some insects, and even rodents and carrion. At the San Diego Zoo, pandas are offered bamboo, carrots, yams, and special leaf eater biscuits made of grain and packed with all the vitamins and minerals pandas need.
Pandas make a bleating sound similar to the sound a lamb or a goat kid would make. It's a friendly sound, a greeting. They don't roar, the way you think of a brown bear roaring. But they do bleat and honk, they sometimes huff, bark, or growl, and young cubs croak and squeal.
Today, only around 1,600 giant pandas survive on Earth. There are several reasons why pandas are endangered:
Low reproductive rate— Pandas like to be by themselves most of the year, and they have a very short breeding season when a male will look for a female to mate with. Females give birth to one or two cubs, which are very dependent on their mothers during the first few years of life. In the wild, mother pandas will care for only one of the young. In panda facilities in China, keepers help to hand raise any twin cubs. One baby is left with the mother and the keepers switch the twins every few days so each one gets care and milk directly from the mother.
Bamboo shortages— When bamboo plants reach maturity, they flower and produce seeds, and then the mature plant dies. The seeds grow slowly into plants large enough for pandas to eat. Giant pandas can eat 25 different types of bamboo, but they usually eat only the 4 or 5 kinds that grow in their home range. The unusual thing about bamboo is that all of the plants of one species growing in an area will bloom and die at the same time. When those plants die, pandas move to another area. But now, with humans taking up much of the panda’s habitat, pandas are often unable to move to another area and may face starvation.
Habitat destruction— China has more than one billion people. As people build more cities and farms and use more natural resources, giant pandas lose their homes.
Hunting— When hunters set snares for other animals, like musk deer, the traps often kill pandas instead.