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Regions > Eurasia > Giant panda
Location at the Zoo: Eurasia
Region: Central Asia
Scientific Name: Ailuropoda melanoleuca
The classification of giant pandas has been an ongoing source of controversy; whether they are related to the smaller red panda, raccoons or bears. Comparison of their genetics, behavior and reproduction have confirmed that indeed bears are the giant pandas closest relative.
The giant panda has the shape typical of bears with a stocky body and short tail. Adults measure between 1.2 and 1.8 meters long and 60 to 90 centimeters tall at the shoulder. The average adult weight is 70 to 125 kilograms. The pandas thick, woolly fur is coloured black on its ears, eye patches, muzzle, legs, arms and shoulders. The rest of the body is white. An enlarged shoulder and neck region, along with a smaller back end, gives giant pandas an ambling gait. Each of the four feet has five digits with claws, plus elongated wrist bones on the front legs that function as opposable thumbs.
Today, wild pandas live only in portions of six isolated mountain ranges in central China, specifically in the provinces of Sichuan, Gansu and Shanxi. Panda habitat is only about 5,900 km2 out of a total range of approximately 30,000 km2 In the past, their ancestors ranged throughout most of southern and eastern China, with fossils being found as far south as Myanmar and Vietnam and stretching north nearly to Beijing.
Giant pandas occupy temperate montane forests with dense stands of bamboo at altitudes of 1,500 to 3,000 meters above sea level. Preferring higher slopes in the summer, they descend to lower elevations in the winter.
In the wild, a giant pandas diet is 99% bamboo and they are very selective in the types of bamboo they will eat. They prefer only a few of the bamboo species that are found in the areas they inhabit. The other 1% of their diet consists of other grasses and occasionally small rodents or musk deer fawns. Because a giant pandas digestive system is more similar to that of a carnivore than a herbivore they have only a few of the enzymes necessary to digest the cellulose making up the bamboo cell walls. Therefore, most of the bamboo goes undigested, passing quickly through their digestive tract (giant pandas relieve themselves dozens of times a day). To make up for their inefficient digestion, a panda needs to consume a comparatively large amount of food in order to extract enough nutrients. The average giant panda eats 9 to 14 kg of bamboo each day. In order to obtain this much food a panda must spend 10 to 16 hours a day foraging and eating. The rest of the time is spent mostly sleeping and resting.
Reproduction and Development :
Female giant pandas are monoestrous, which means they only have one reproductive cycle per year (usually March to May) and this is the only time the female is receptive to the male and that is only for a period of 24 to 72 hours. It is thought that specific chirp and bleat vocalizations and scents advertise their fertility and readiness to mate with males nearby. Rival males may fight for a female at this time. After mating, the gestation period lasts about 45 days. The total pregnancy however, can last 3 to 51/2 months if there is delayed implantation of the fetus.
Delayed implantation is when a fertilized egg does not immediately implant on the mothers uterine wall, but instead floats around in her reproductive tract for varying lengths of time. No development takes place during this time and as a result the normal gestation period is extended. Delayed implantation gives the giant panda more control over when cubs are born, which allows them to give birth at the time of year that offers the best chance of survival of their young, usually in August and September.
Females may give birth to two cubs, but only one is cared for by the mother, likely because she is unable to suckle both. Panda infants are born blind and extremely immature, weighing only 80 to 200 grams, and are about the size of a stick of butter. They are pink in colour, with short sparse white hair, and are 1/900th the size of their mother, one of the smallest newborn mammals relative to their mothers size. After about a month, the cub develops the typical black and white colour pattern. They do not open their eyes until they are 6 8 weeks of age and they are not able to crawl until about three months of age. Cubs are fully weaned at 8 to 9 months of age, but usually remain with their mother until about 18 months of age. The male leaves the female alone to raise the cub. Giant pandas are ready to breed between four and eight years of age and may be reproductive until about age 20.
Giant pandas have developed unique adaptations related to having lived in the bamboo forests for millions of years. Because of their low metabolic rate and sedentary lifestyle, they are able to subsist on a diet of bamboo, from which pandas derive little protein and little energy. The pandas molar and premolar teeth are wider and flatter than those of other bears. These teeth and their powerful jaws allow pandas to crush and grind the tough, fibrous bamboo. Its round face is the result of the powerful jaw and jaw muscles. The stomach walls are extremely muscular to help digest the woody diet and the gut is covered with a thick layer of mucus to protect against splinters. An extra, opposable digit (thumb) on the front paw is actually a modified sesamoid (wrist) bone that enables the panda to dexterously grasp bamboo stalks. In the past, the black and white markings on giant pandas may have helped them to blend into their snowy and rocky surroundings to avoid natural predators of which they have none today. Unlike other bears, pandas do not hibernate, but will take temporary shelter in hollow trees, rock crevices and caves during the winter.
Threats to Survival :
Although recent survey results differ, best estimates indicate a total wild population of approximately 1,600 giant pandas in small, isolated populations, confined to high ridges. One of the main reasons that pandas have become endangered is habitat destruction. As the population in China continues to grow, panda habitat gets taken over by development, pushing them into smaller and less livable areas. Habitat destruction also leads to food shortages. Pandas feed on several varieties of bamboo at different times of the year. If one type of bamboo is destroyed by development, it can leave the panda with nothing to eat during the time it normally blooms, increasing the risk of starvation. Besides habitat loss, a further threat is the periodic, large-scale die-off of bamboo at intervals of 15 to 120 years.
Poaching of pandas, was a serious problem in the past, but is no longer considered a threat since the Chinese government has adopted conservation initiatives for this species. Today, there are 63 panda reserves in China that are attempting to preserve panda habitat and to support breeding programs. Logging has been banned in these reserves and reforestation programs are being implemented to reclaim agricultural area. Corridors are being created to connect fragmented habitat. As well as in Asia, many zoos in Australia, Europe and North America are involved in protecting the giant panda from possible extinction. Captive breeding success with giant pandas has increased dramatically in the last 20 years due to technology and reproduction methodology advancements and the hard work of international zoos and research facilities working with panda scientists and reserves in China. There will be over 350 giant pandas in captivity when the 2012 breeding season is completed. A new target of 500 individuals has been set to support reintroduction studies which are returning pandas to the wild. This research is currently underway and is very promising for giant panda conservation efforts. The Toronto Zoo also supports giant panda conservation projects through the Toronto Zoos Endangered Species Reserve Fund.
IUCN: Vulnerable; CITES: Appendix I
Zoo Diet :
Bamboo (80-90% of diet), leaf eater biscuits, dog chow, apples and vitamins. They will be offered 42 to 64 kg of bamboo each day.