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Last updated on April 17, 2014 at 21:23 EDT

Giant Panda, Ailuropoda melanoleuca

The giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), also known as the panda, is a species of bear that is native to southwestern and central western areas of China. Its range includes mountain ranges located primarily in Sichuan province, but pandas can also be found in the Gansu and Shaanxi provinces. It once preferred a habitat within lowland areas, but human encroachment has driven the giant panda into small areas, which contain forested habitats. There are two recognized subspecies of the giant panda, both of which resemble the panda in appearance, skull shape, and population genetics. These are the Qinling panda, which lives in the Qinling Mountains, and  Ailuropoda melanoleuca melanoleuca, which resides mainly in Sichuan.

The giant panda can reach an average body length of four to six feet, with a tail length of 5.1 inches. Females can reach and average weight of 170 to 280 pounds, while males weigh an average of up to 350 pounds. The body shape of the panda is typical to bear species, although the tail is the second largest among all bears. Its black fur appears on its ears, muzzle, patches around the eyes, legs, and shoulders, while the rest of the fur is white. This coloring is thought to provide camouflage in the panda’s natural habitat, which is rocky and forested. Its fur also keeps it warm within its habitat. The giant panda has a thumb on its paws, which is actually an adapted sesamoid bone. It uses this adaptation to help hold bamboo shoots.

The true classification of the giant panda was debated for many years, because it shared similarities to both bears and raccoons. Genetic studies found that this panda is a true member of the Ursidae family. It was found that its closest living relative is the spectacled bear, which can be found in South America, and that the giant panda is an example of a living fossil. The red panda, although it shares the adapted ‘thumb” with the giant panda, has been found to be a distant relative.

The giant panda is typically solitary, and spends most of its life on the ground searching for food. Both males and females hold territories, and females will not allow other females into their home range. Most contact between individuals occurs during the breeding season, when many pandas will gather in one area. After breeding, males will leave females to raise a cub alone. Both males and females do not require hibernation, so they do not create permanent dens. Typically, pandas communicate by scent marking and claw marking.

The breeding season for the giant panda occurs between the months of March and May. During this time, females are only able to mate for up to three days, and can only mate once per year. Breeding takes from thirty seconds to five minutes, and males will mount females multiple times to ensure breeding is successful. After breeding, the female will have a pregnancy period between 95 to 160 days, which results in the birth of one or two young. Typically, if twins are born, only one survives in the wild. This is thought to occur because pandas do not store fat and cannot provide enough milk for two cubs.

Baby pandas are born hairless and blind, weighing an average of 3.2 to 4.6 ounces. They will nurse up to fourteen times a day for thirty minutes at a time. At about one or two weeks of age, the baby panda will show signs of fur growth where the skin turns grey in the areas where black fur will be. At one month of age, the fur will be completely grown in. Cubs are able to crawl at up to eighty days, after which time the mother will engage in play fighting. At six months of age, cubs will begin eating bamboo, although they still nurse until one year of age. Weaning and full maturity is reached at about eighteen months of age, and pandas are able to breed at four to eight years of age, and it is thought the they can breed until twenty years of age.

Although the giant panda is formally classified as a carnivore, its diet consists mainly of vegetation, namely bamboo. However, bamboo does not give it the full amount of nutrients it needs, because its digestive system is wired to digest meat. Despite this, it digests cellulose well, an adaptation that has allowed it to remain in its natural habitat. It can eat between 20 and 30 pounds of bamboo shoots per day and will conserve the energy extracted from its meals in order to maintain its health.

The giant panda holds a few physical adaptations pertaining to its bamboo diet. Besides the paws, the giant panda has reached a larger size than most plant-eating animals typically reach, and its face is rounder than most bear species.  Instead of growing all sharp teeth for consuming meat, this species has large molars, which are used to tear and crush bamboo shoots. These shoots can come from any of the twenty-five species of wild bamboo within the panda’s range, however, only a few types are typically consumed due to its restricted habitat. The leaves of the bamboo plant hold the most nutrients. At least two types of bamboo must be in the panda’s range for it to survive, and it has been known to eat fish, eggs, and meat if available. Pandas in captivity are typically given a healthy diet of bamboo, although some zoos do provide a supplementary biscuit in this diet as well.

Although there is no concrete information on the origin of the word “panda,” it is thought that it may have derived from the Nepali word “ponya.” This could refer to its adapted wrist. The name “panda” was used to denote the red panda until 1901, during which time the giant panda was known as the mottled bear or the particolored bear. Encyclopedias also used the name “panda” specifically for the red panda, eventually differentiating between the two species by using the names “red panda” and “giant panda.” Local names for the giant panda include huā xióng, which means “spotted bear” and zhú xióng, which means “bamboo bear.” Another name, dà xióng māo, means “large bear cat” and it is thought that this name may have been motivated by the giant panda’s cat like eyes. In Taiwan, the giant panda is locally known as māo xióng, which means “cat bear.”

In the past, the giant panda was thought to have been a noble creature. It is thought that the grandson of Emperor Taizong of Tang gave Japan two live pandas and a panda skin as a gesture of good will. Emperor Wen of Han’s () mother was said to have been buried with a panda skull. In some ancient books, the creature called “mo” is thought to have been the giant panda, which was described as a yellow and black bear-like creature. The Erya, an ancient encyclopedia from the Qin Dynasty, described the panda as a leopard. Unlike most creatures in ancient China, the panda was not known to hold many medicinal uses. The Erya states that panda fur can help control menses, and the Sichuan people used panda urine to melt accidentally swallowed needles.

The giant panda was made known to Western world in 1869, after French missionary Armand David received a skin from a hunter in March of that same year. In 1916, German zoologist Hugo Weigold acquired a giant panda cub. The first live panda to be brought to the Western world was a cub named Su Lin, who was placed in the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago by Ruth Harkness. Five giant pandas were sent to London in 1938, but due to war, the Western world did not know any more of the panda for the next fifty years.

In the 1970’s, pandas were loaned to Japanese and American zoos, which helped bolster the diplomacy of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).  This process, known as “Panda Diplomacy,” marked some of the first cultural interaction between the West and the PRC. Beginning in 1984, giant pandas were no longer given as gifts, but only as loans for a period of ten years. These loans require a fee of up to one million U.S. dollars, and states that any baby pandas born from the loaned pandas belong to the People’s Republic of China. Because of a 1998 WWF lawsuit, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service only allow pandas to be placed in zoos if they can guarantee that the PRC will give half of the loan money to giant panda conservation efforts.

Giant pandas have resided in zoos since the Western Han Dynasty in China. The writer Sima Xiangru wrote that the giant panda was among the most treasured of animals in the emperor’s private garden located in Xi’an, formerly known as the capital of Chang’an. Despite the panda’s prominent status in this collection, it was not recorded in Chinese zoos again until the 1950’s. One panda from the London Zoo, named Chi Chi, became so popular that the World Wildlife Fund chose to use the panda as its symbol. It was found in 2006 that the panda was one of the most expensive animals to maintain in zoos, just above the elephant. The San Diego zoo’s contract with China was extended for five years, after the initial ten-year loan expired. Although these contracts typically cost one million dollars per year, the San Diego zoo only pays half of full fee during this five-year period. The Memphis Zoo holds the last contract with China, which expires in 2013.

Many zoos house giant pandas, and some of these are breeding centers.  These appear in Europe, Asia, Australia, and North America. Some of the pandas born in North American institutions include the first baby panda to survive outside of China. This female panda resided in Chapultepec Zoo in Mexico City. Other cubs include Mei Sheng and Zhen Zhen from the San Diego Zoo, which were both moved to China.

In captivity, the primary means of breeding pandas was by artificial insemination, because most pandas lost any will to breed once captured. Other methods included giving males Viagra and making the pandas watch videos of other pandas breeding. In recent years, experts have been able to come up with a successful breeding program, and have found that the reproductive habits of the panda are similar to the American black bear. A cub was born in 2009 in Sichuan to You You, an eleven-year-old female giant panda. This cub was the first to be born from artificial insemination using frozen sperm, a process that is thought to be a good solution to the breeding problem facing giant pandas.

The giant panda is threatened by habitat loss and low birth rates in the wild and in captivity. Poaching has always been a threat to this species as well. In China, Western poachers could no longer hunt the panda after the 1930’s due to war, but locals continued to hunt it for its fur. Habitat loss occurred in and after 1949 after the population number of humans grew, and famines caused the increased amounts of locals to turn to hunting, which including the hunting of giant pandas. The trade of panda skins, although illegal, was still conducted after the Chinese economic reform, further damaging the giant panda’s population number.

In 1958, the Wolong National Nature Reserve was created specifically for the giant panda, but due to inexperienced staff, this conservation effort was not very successful. It was thought that the best way to save pandas that were in danger in this area and others was to cage them, but the conditions the pandas lived through while being caged were deplorable. Coupled with habitat loss and segregation caused by this form of caging, the population of giant pandas dwindled. In the 1990’s, however, new laws were created to regulate hunting and remove humans from protected areas. These conservation efforts allowed the giant panda population to increase in a few areas. The wild population of giant pandas in 2006 was thought to be around 1,000 individuals, but scientists thought this to be an underestimate. With newer technology, such as the ability to test dung for panda DNA, scientists were able to estimate the wild panda population to be around 3,000. By 2006, there were forty protected areas in China for the giant panda.

The giant panda is one of the few animals listed on the UNESCO World Heritage Site, with seven of the Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries being listed there as well. In 2012, a program called “On the Trail of Giant Panda” was created by a nonprofit organization known as Earthwatch Institute. This program brings volunteers and scientists together in the Wolong National Nature Reserve in order to care for the giant pandas and help them recover their numbers. Currently, the giant panda appears on the IUCN Red List with a conservation status of “Endangered.”

Image Caption: Giant Panda, Ailuropoda melanoleuca. Credit: J. Patrick Fischer/Wikipedia  (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Giant Panda Ailuropoda melanoleuca