Giant Panda

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Mammals

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Giant Panda
Panda at National Zoo in Washington, D.C.
Panda at National Zoo in Washington, D.C.
Conservation status

Endangered ( IUCN)
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Carnivora
Family: Ursidae
Genus: Ailuropoda
Milne-Edwards, 1870
Species: A. melanoleuca
Binomial name
Ailuropoda melanoleuca
( David, 1869)
Giant Panda range
Giant Panda range

A. melanoleuca melanoleuca
A. melanoleuca qinlingensis

The giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca, "black-and-white cat-foot"; Chinese: 大熊貓) is a mammal classified in the bear family, Ursidae, native to central-western and southwestern China. It is easily recognized by its large, distinctive black patches around the eyes, ears and on its round body. Though belonging to the order Carnivora, the panda has a diet which is 99% bamboo. However, they may eat other foods such as honey, eggs, fish and yams.

The Giant Panda is an endangered animal; an estimated 3,000 pandas live in the wild and over 180 were reported to live in captivity by August 2006 in mainland China (another source by the end of 2006 put the figure for China at 221), with twenty pandas living outside of China. However, reports show that the numbers of wild panda are on the rise.

The giant panda is a favorite 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 behaviour.


The Giant Panda has a very distinctive black-and-white coat. Adults measure around 1.5 m long and around 75 cm 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 Giant Panda has also become an informal national emblem for China. Its image appears on a large number of modern Chinese commemorative silver, gold, and platinum coins.

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


Until recently, scientists thought giant pandas spent most of their lives alone, with males and females meeting only during the breeding season. Recent studies paint a different picture, in which small groups of pandas share a large territory and sometimes meet outside the breeding season.

Like most subtropical mammals, but unlike most bears, the giant panda does not hibernate.


Despite its taxonomic classification as a carnivore, the panda has a diet that is primarily herbivorous, which consists almost exclusively of bamboo. However, pandas still have the digestive system of a carnivore and do not have the ability to digest cellulose efficiently, and thus derive little energy and little protein from consumption of bamboo. The average Giant Panda eats as much as 20 to 30 pounds of bamboo shoots a day. Because pandas consume a diet low in nutrition, it is important that they keep their digestive tract full.

As the average temperature of the region has increased, the panda has pushed its habitat to a higher altitude and limited the available space. Furthermore, the timber profit, gained from harvesting bamboo - the panda's food - has destroyed the food supply for the wild panda because of all these elements. From 1973-1984 the population of wild pandas decreased by 50 percent in six areas of Asia. Although giant pandas subsist on an herbivore's diet, they retain the relatively simple digestive trait of a carnivore. The panda's round face is an adaptation to its bamboo diet. Their powerful jaw muscles attach from the top of the head to the jaw. Large molars crush and grind fibrous plant material.

Twenty-five species of bamboo are eaten by pandas in the wild, but it is hard to live in the remains of a forest and feed on dying plants in a rugged landscape. Only a few bamboo species are widespread at the high altitudes pandas now inhabit. Bamboo leaves contain the highest protein levels, stems have less.

Because of the synchronous flowering, death and regeneration of all bamboo within a species, pandas must have a least two different species available in their range to avoid starvation. While primarily herbivorous, the panda still retains decidedly ursine teeth, and will eat meat, fish, and eggs when available. In captivity, zoos typically maintain the pandas' bamboo diet, though some will provide specially formulated biscuits or other dietary supplements.


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 ursine relative is the Spectacled Bear of South America. (Disagreement still remains about whether or not the red panda belongs in Ursidae, the raccoon family Procyonidae, or in its own family, Ailuridae.)


Hua Mei, the baby panda born at the San Diego Zoo in 1999
Hua Mei, the baby panda born at the San Diego Zoo in 1999

Two subspecies of giant panda have been recognized on the basis of distinct cranial measurements, colour 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.

Uses and human interaction

Unlike many other animals in ancient China, pandas were rarely thought to have medical uses. 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.

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 pandas.

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

Panda Diplomacy

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.

In May 2005, the People's Republic of China offered Taiwan (Republic of China) two pandas as a gift. This proposed gift was met by polarized opinions from Taiwan due to complications stemming from cross-strait relations. So far Taiwan has not accepted the offer.


Giant pandas are an endangered species, threatened by continued habitat loss and by a very low birthrate, both in the wild and in captivity.

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.

Close up of a baby 7-month old panda cub in the Wolong Nature Reserve in Sichuan, China.
Close up of a baby 7-month old panda cub in the Wolong Nature Reserve in Sichuan, China.

Though the Wolong National Nature 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 large 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.

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 gain 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.


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. A female panda may have 2-3 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 colour 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 colour 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 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.

The Chinese language name for the giant panda, 大熊貓, literally translates to "large bear cat", or just "bear cat" (熊貓).

Most bears' eyes have round pupils. The exception is the giant panda, whose pupils are vertical slits like cats' eyes. These unusual eyes, combined with its ability to effortlessly scale trees, are what inspired the Chinese to call the panda the "large bear cat".

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

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 early 2007, 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 a female cub named Mei Lan (F)
  • Memphis Zoo, Memphis, Tennessee - home of Ya Ya (F) and Le Le (M)
  • Chapultepec Zoo, Mexico City - home of Shuan Shuan, Xin Xin, and Xi Hua, all females

Notable North American-born pandas

  • Tai Shan, born July 9, 2005 at the National Zoo in Washington.
  • Su Lin, born August 2, 2005 at the San Diego Zoo.
  • Mei Lan, born September 6, 2006 at Zoo Atlanta.


Giant panda in Vienna’s zoo Tiergarten Schönbrunn
Giant panda in Vienna’s zoo Tiergarten Schönbrunn

Two zoos in Europe show giant pandas:

  • Zoologischer Garten Berlin, Berlin, Germany - home of Bao Bao, age 27, the oldest male 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, Madrid, and Paris no longer have pandas, although Madrid is exploring the possibility of obtaining pandas in the future.


  • Chengdu Research base of Giant Panda Breeding, Chengdu, Sichuan, China - Home to a number of captive giant pandas, including 2-year old Xiong Bang (M), who just arrived from Japan. Twelve cubs were born here in 2006.
  • Wolong Giant Panda Protection and Research Centre, Sichuan, China - Seventeen cubs were born here in 2006.
  • Chiang Mai Zoo, Chiang Mai, 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) since 1999. Two further pandas named Le Le and Ying Ying are added to Ocean Park on April 26, 2007.

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. In December 2006, twin cubs were born to Ei Mei and Mei Mei.

Pandas on television

The first sequences of pandas in the wild were shot by Franz Camenzind for American Broadcasting Company in about 1982. They were bought by BBC Natural History Unit for their weekly magazine show Nature.

Recently NHNZ has featured pandas in two documentaries. Panda Nursery (2006) featured China’s Wolong Nature Reserve in the mountains in Sichuan Province, forty giant pandas and a dedicated team of staff play a crucial role in ensuring the survival of the species. As part of the Reserve’s panda breeding programme, a revolutionary new method of rearing twin cubs called ‘swap-raising’ has been developed. Each cub is raised by both its natural mother and one of the Reserve’s veterinarians, Wei Rongping, to increase the chances of both cubs surviving. Growing Up: Giant Panda (2003) featured Chengdu Giant Panda Centre in south-west China as one of the best in the world. But with female pandas' short fertility cycles and low birth rates, raising the captive panda population is an uphill battle.

Pandas in popular culture

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. Panda Express' logo is a cartoon 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 & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.
  • The World Wide Fund for Nature logo is a stylized panda.
  • A panda named Jing Jing is one of the Friendlies, the mascots for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.
  • Pandaren, humanised versions of Pandas appear several times in Blizzard's RTS game Warcraft III - The Frozen Throne as a playabe hero in the Orc campaign. The Pandaren are depicted as devout brewers of alcohol, possibly a reference to the incident involving a drunken man and a Panda. Pandaren were also thought to be the secret new race for the Alliance in World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade, until it was revealed to be the Draenei.
  • ' Panda' is a playable character in the arcade fighting game Tekken. Within the game storyline, Panda is a pet of the character Ling Xiaoyu.
  • The Giant Panda is the most expensive animal in Zoo Tycoon and Zoo Tycoon 2, therefore making it the hardest to keep.
  • 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. As a panda he communicates by holding up signs.
  • The Panda is the informal national animal of China.
  • A panda who learns martial arts is the central character in the forthcoming animated film Kung Fu Panda (2008), voiced by Jack Black.
  • There is a Sanrio fictional character named Pandaba, who is a sidekick of Badtz Maru.
  • Enjoi Skateboards' logo is a stylized panda.
  • 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.
  • There is a Mexican rock band named Panda.
  • The webcomic PvP has a running joke in which the character Brent Sienna is attacked by a giant panda whenever the word 'panda' is spoken.
  • In Mexico, gummy bears are often called "panditas" (little pandas), due to the most popular brand of gummy bears adopted as a generic name.
  • In the South Park episode Sexual Harassment Panda, the title character is a mascot, a man dressed in panda costume that explains to the children why sexual harassment is bad.
  • The children's show Mister Rogers Neighbourhood featured a character named Purple Panda, who came from a planet where everything was purple.
  • Washington Metro farecards have pictures of pandas printed on them.
  • The character Tenten of Naruto, her name is based off double names commonly given too pandas; her hairstyle is also based on panda ears.

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