The giant panda is coloured black and white. Across the majority of their body is white fur. On the limbs, across the shoulders, the ears and in a circle around the eyes the fur is black. The nose is also black in colour. Scientists have hypothesised a number of reasons for this colouration. Some of these reasons include that their colours make it easier for them to find each other in the wild. Another idea is that these contrasting colours provide camouflage when they are high in the treetops. The coat is thick and woolly an adaptation that helps to keep them warm.
Like the other bear species giant pandas have a large head and a long muzzle. This assists them being able to smell incredibly well. Their tail is very short at 10.6-15.24cm (4-6in) but is actually the second longest tail of any bear. On the hand they have an extension of the wrist which is much like a thumb. This assists them in holding the bamboo that forms most of their diet. This is called the ‘opposable pseudo thumb.’ The jaw is large and strong so they can crunch through the bamboo.
From the head to the base of the tail giant pandas measure 1.5m (5ft) long. At the shoulder they stand 70-80cm (27-32in). Females are slightly smaller than males weighing 70-100kg (155-220lb) while males weigh 86-125kg (190-275lb).
In zoos giant pandas have lived for up to 35 years. In the wild it is known that they live for a shorter period of time than this. How much shorter this time is though is currently unknown.
Giant Pandas are omnivores. They feed almost exclusively on bamboo. This makes up 99% of their diet. They can feed on 30 species of bamboo. Pandas will spend up to 12 hours a day eating bamboo as it is so low in nutrition. This means they need lots of it as much of it just passes through them. This occurs as their body is designed to digest meat and cannot sufficiently remove the nutrients from bamboo. During their day they can consume up to 30kg of bamboo. Throughout the year they will change what part of the bamboo they eat as the nutritional content changes throughout the year.
Grasses, bulbs, fruits, insects and even carrion will form the other 1% of their diet. They are opportunistic hunters that eat most foods that they can come across.
Pandas get a large amount of their water needs from the bamboo. Bamboo is 50% water and some of it can be 90% water. This may provide some of their water but still needs to go to rivers and streams to get the rest of their water.
China is the home of the giant pandas. Here they live in six small fragments of forest. Most of their homes used to be in the lowlands of the Yangtze River basin. As humans have increased their presence in this area they have moved further up into the mountains.
They inhabit conifer forests with a good understory of bamboo. It is important that these are old growth forests. These have hollow logs and tree stumps which pandas can den in.
Pandas live a solitary lifestyle and come together when it is time to mate. When the female coming into oestrus and she will leave scent marks to alert the male to this. He will then seek her out so they can mate. He must find her quickly as the female is only able to mate for 3 days a year in the spring. This window is between March and May.
Once the male finds the female he will stick near to her anticipating the start of this 3 days. He will regularly smell her to see if he she is ready to mate and make groans and bleats to make her become attracted to him. Once she is ready they mate a number of times in an attempt to ensure she becomes pregnant. After this the male leaves to find another female that he can mate with.
If she is successful a panda cub will be born 95-160 days after they mate. In some rare instances twins or triplets are born. These can’t survive in most cases as the female can only take one out when she needs to leave the den on her back. When compared with the size of the mother, pandas have the smallest mammal baby that is not carried in a pouch. The blind, helpless pup measures about 15cm and weighs only 100g. When the baby is not suckling it is carried in one of her paws. The mother will not eat or drink for several days after the birth. The eyes of the cub open after 50 to 60 days.
At 10 weeks of age the cub begins to crawl and at 14 weeks old the mother and cub begin to leave the den together. It is also at this time that its teeth begin to come through. When making their outings the baby will ride on the mothers back. This continues until they are 6 months old when they can begin to walk. Up until 7-9 months of age it is exists solely on milk. At this time they begin to taste bamboo. It will drink milk and eat bamboo up until 18 months of age when it moves solely to solid foods.
After 18 months the mother looks to send the baby off on its own. It may remain with her for up to 3 years though. Once they leave they establish their own territory.
The females will not begin breeding till they are 5 or 6 years old. Giant pandas stop breeding around 22 years of age. In this time they may only have 5 cubs. This low reproductive ability is part of the reason that giant pandas are so endangered.
The panda is considered to be one of the most vocal bear species. Their most distinctive sound is their greeting which sounds like a bleat. Other vocalisations include honks, huffs, barks and growls while young cubs will croak and squeal.
The other method of communication used by pandas is scent marking. They have a gland under their short tails from which they secrete a waxy substance they place on most of the features of their environment. The scent is incredibly strong and can be smelt by a human up to a foot away. This mark provides information relating to the pandas gender, age, social status and if they are ready to mate. Pandas aim to place these marks as high as possible. Occasionally they will use ‘handstands’ to get higher up a tree.
Predators of the pandas include tigers and leopards. These animals are in such low numbers or are extinct in the pandas range meaning they pose little threat. Up until 2 ½ years old panda cubs are under threat from golden cats, dholes, weasels and yellow throated martens.
Currently it is thought that pandas are solitary and never meet with other pandas. They are known to maintain a home range which they mark out and defend. Some new research though suggests that small group’s pandas tolerate each other in their home ranges and will occasionally meet. Much research still needs to be done into this.
There are currently 2 recognised subspecies of Giant Panda the Qinling Panda and the Ailuropoda melanoleuca melanoleuca. The Qinling panda lives in the Qinling Mountains and it’s skull is smaller than other pandas. The Ailuropoda melanoleuca melanoleuca is found mostly in Sichuan and displays the black and white colours of other panda’s.
The giant panda goes by many names. Locals call it the ‘bamboo bear’, Their scientific name, ‘Ailuropoda melanoleuca’ means ‘ cat-foot black and white.’ Their Chinese name translates as ‘Giant Bear Cat.’
There is a small number of brown and white pandas in the Qinling mountains.
Giant pandas were first described for science in 1869 by the French Missionary Pere Armand David.
The panda is seen as a symbol for conservation the world over. It is used on the logo of the World Wildlife Fund.
Giant pandas are a national treasure by China and they only rarely allow them to go to international zoos. Having them is an honour for a zoos and requires them to donate $1 million a year to panda conservation.
Only 1600 giant pandas remain in the wild.