Pandas

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Order: Carnivora
Family: Ursidae
Genus: Ailuropoda
Life Span: 15 - 30 years
Population: 2460
Species Status: Vulnerable

Fun Factoid

Did you know? Just like Polar Bears, Grizzlies have an excellent sense of smell that is 2,100 times better than a human’s!

Welcome to the world of Giant Pandas (Ailuropoda melanoleuca)! Giant Pandas, also called Panda Bears or Pandas, are native to the mountain ranges of South-central China in areas with rich forest and plenty of bamboo. They are 1 of 4 bear species that live in China, which also includes the Sun Bear, Sloth Bear, and Asiatic Black Bear. All the way up until 1985, Pandas were not considered “true bears” due to their very unique biological and physical features, but molecular testing proved that Pandas belong in the true bear family Ursidae. Panda Bears are the second smallest bear in the world, with the smallest being the Sun Bear. Even though they may be small compared to other bears, Pandas generally weigh between 150 and 300lbs when fully grown, and can stand on their hind legs up to 6 ft tall!

Geography

Fun Factoid

Did you know? Pandas can stay comfortably warm in temperatures below freezing!

Giant Panda Bears live in temperate forests found high within the Southwest and central mountain ranges of China. Although they once also roamed most of the Southern and Eastern China, along with Vietnam and Myanmar, Giant Panda habitat has been severely restricted to a fraction of what it once was. Due to deforestation and habitat fragmentation for urban development, Pandas were forced to high altitudes in the mountains between 5000 and 10,000ft. Because of this, Pandas are well adapted for chilly and even freezing temperatures with high humidity. They have a very thick coat that protects them from the cold, but this also means they can struggle when the weather becomes too warm.

What are Pandas?

Panda Bears are very unique compared to some of their other Bear cousins. When they were first studied by modern scientists, they were not believed to be “true bears” due to some of their physical characteristics, and they were believed to be related to another animal called the Red Panda. Although both animals are called “Pandas” they are not closely related. The word “Panda” actually means “eater of bamboo”, and both the Red Panda and the Giant Panda rely on bamboo as their primary source of nutrition. Giant Pandas have a special extra thumb on their paw called a pseudo-thumb, which is specifically for holding bamboo. Giant Pandas also have a very unique and distinct white and black pattern which is believed to help them camouflage in the very shadowy mountain ranges which commonly have snow. Because they eat so much bamboo, their molars are specially evolved to be very flat and broad to crush up the tough stalks. Just like their other bear cousins, they have a short tail, muscular limbs, small round ears, and a fantastic sense of smell.

Fun Factoid

Did you know? Although it is thought that Panda markings are for camouflage, scientists still do not know the exact reason for Pandas’ black and white markings.

Behavior

Giant Panda Bears are not extremely active, and will usually split their time up between resting or eating. They tend to be most active during dawn and dusk, although they usually will break up their sleep into short segments spread throughout the day. Like their other bear cousins, Pandas are solitary animals and don’t spend much time with other Pandas. Instead they will communicate with each other through scent markings in the forest. They also can vocalize to each other through chirps, growls, and different calls. Unlike other bears, Pandas do not hibernate. Pandas are very calm bears and rarely have confrontations with other bears or with people. However, they are still bears and will protect themselves with large claws and canine teeth if they feel threatened. Pandas tend to avoid being in close proximity to other Pandas, which can cause problems when it is breeding season. The only time Giant Pandas stay together for extended periods of time would be when a breeding pair is together, or when a Giant Panda is caring for a cub.

Fun Factoid

Did you know? Instead of having round pupils, Giant Pandas have slit pupils like domestic cats!

Diet

Fun Factoid

Did you know? Giant Pandas will eat for about 16 hours a day!

Giant Pandas have a very unique diet compared to other bears, where bamboo makes up about 99% of what they eat. This is where they get their name “Panda” meaning “eater of bamboo” from. Although they eat about 70 to 100lbs of bamboo per day, the Giant Panda’s digestive system is still designed for meat, which means they have to eat a lot of bamboo to get all their nutritional needs from it. They have specially adapted teeth and strong jaws to crush and rip apart large stalks. It is believed that Pandas transitioned to a bamboo diet because bamboo is plentiful in their natural habitat and it is also high in fiber, water, and even protein. Besides bamboo, the other 1% of their diet consists of things such as squash, beans, fruits, and occasionally but rarely they may scavenge a small amount of meat. Something very interesting about Pandas is that they are biologically dependent on bamboo in their diet and cannot live without it.

Reproduction

Giant Pandas have historically had a difficult time reproducing which caused their population to drop significantly. This is due to a few reasons. The first is that their plant heavy diet doesn’t give them much energy to travel long distances to find mates. The second is habitat fragmentation splitting up Panda populations and causing difficulty in finding a good mate. The third, and most prevalent problem, is that female Pandas are only fertile in the Spring for about 2 to 3 days or 24 to 36 hours out of the whole year! Due to this, Panda reproduction is very slow, and female Pandas can go many years without having a cub. When Pandas mate they start around 5 to 6 years old. Males and females will normally stay together for about 2 to 4 days before parting ways. If the female Panda does become pregnant they have a gestation period of 90 – 135 days before giving birth to one very small, hairless, and blind cub, weighing only about 4 ounces. Panda cubs grow very quickly, and can grow to ten times their birthweight in only 5 weeks, beginning to crawl and grow teeth by four months old. Panda cubs will stay with their mother until they are about 1.5 to 2 years old, and by the time they hit 1 year old, they can weigh over 100 lbs.

Fun Factoid

Did you know? Without the help of Panda breeding programs, Giant Pandas would still be endangered!

Threats

Giant Pandas are currently labelled as vulnerable; however, they still face many threats that can cause problems for these amazing animals. Habitat fragmentation for urban development is a threat that is always increasing for Giant Pandas. The building of roads, buildings, railways, and dams continues to break up Panda territory, making it dangerous for Pandas to travel to different areas to find food and mate. Another threat to Pandas is their slow reproduction rate and avoidance of each other. When Pandas roamed most of China, this was not as much of a threat, as Pandas had lots of space to roam and there were many opportunities to find a mate. However, with low population numbers from habitat fragmentation, Pandas struggle to reproduce enough to keep their populations up. Another threat Pandas face is climate change. Like most other species, Pandas are adapted for a very specific environment. With climate change their environment can shift causing food shortages, temperature changes, and even different diseases.

Population

Although Pandas face significant threats, major efforts from environmental organizations, governments, and animal researchers has successfully brought up the Panda population from endangered status to only vulnerable. This was accomplished through strict regulations, Panda reservations, and breeding programs held in animal research facilities. Thanks to help from all these organizations together, Panda populations are now slowly rising. At the moment bamboo corridors are being created to help Pandas travel safely to different forests separated by streets and other developments. Another important step is the protection of Panda habitat in the hope that eventually Giant Pandas will be able to sustain their own population without help from breeding programs. Thanks to all these efforts, the Giant Panda population has been able to rise from its lowest point of 1114 individuals in the 1980s to around 1864 Pandas in the wild and about 600 in research facilities to help them breed.

How to Help

Even if you don’t live in China, there are ways you can help save Giant Pandas. The most important way you can help is by supporting organizations doing essential and important research about Giant Panda habitat and behavior. These organizations are helping to create safe corridors, protecting habitat, and backing legal protections for the amazing Giant Pandas. These organizations include World Wildlife Fund, Pandas International, and Chengdu Research of Giant Panda center. There are also many other biology institutes found throughout the world who working to help study and bring up the Giant Panda population.
Since climate change is something which can affect Pandas, reducing your energy usage can help protect Panda habitat. By turning off unused lights, using less water, and even taking public transportation instead of driving can all help reduce the effects of climate change.
Also, always make sure the products you buy, such as groceries, produce, and other foods, are produced and farmed sustainably. By checking your products to make sure they are not being farmed in areas which cause deforestation in Panda habitat, you are helping to preserve more Panda habitat.

Fun Factoid

Did you know? Pandas have a bite force equivalent to a Lion’s!