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Giant Panda

Ailuropoda melanoleuca

Ailuropoda melanoleuca, meaning "cat-footed, black and white animal".

What is black and white and loved all over? The giant panda of course!

The Giant Pandas Are Here!

For the second time ever, two giant pandas are in Toronto. The first time was in 1985, when two giant pandas spent the summer at the Toronto Zoo. This time, the pandas will be in Canada for at least 10 years (a minimum of five years at the Toronto Zoo and five years at the Calgary Zoo) as of March 2013. The two giant pandas that have joined Toronto Zoo's family are Er Shun (female) and Da Mao (male). The name 'Er Shun' means 'Double Smoothness'. Er Shun was born at the Chongqing Zoo on August 10, 2007 and was raised by her mother. Da Mao was born on September 1, 2008 at the Chengdu Research Base of Panda Breeding. This pair was chosen as a good genetic match for breeding.

In China, the giant panda is a national treasure. It has been the World Wildlife Fund's (WWF's) logo since 1961. The inspiration for this logo came from Chi-Chi, a giant panda that had arrived at the London Zoo in 1961, the same year WWF was formed.

The giant panda is one of the most beloved animals in the world and is perhaps the most powerful symbol in the world for wildlife conservation. It is also one of the most endangered species in the world, with only around 1,600 left in the wild.

About The Giant Panda

Giant pandas live in a few mountain ranges in central China. They once lived in lowland areas, but farming, forest clearing, and other development now restrict giant pandas to the mountains. The giant panda is listed as endangered in the World Conservation Union's (IUCN's) Red List of Threatened Animals. There are about 1,600 left in the wild. Nearly 300 pandas live in zoos and breeding centers around the world, mostly in China.


Did you know that the giant panda is an Endangered Species? While they are classed as carnivores, they have adapted to a vegetarian diet eating predominantly bamboo. Apart from their dependence on bamboo, the giant panda has a low birth rate of one cub every two years. These creatures play a crucial role in nature by spreading seeds and facilitating the growth of vegetation in the wild. While they do have natural predators, jackals, leopards, and the yellow-throated marten which eats their young, their most deadly predator is man. At one time giant pandas were much more widespread in China. Now they live in a few mountain ranges in Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu provinces. Human encroachment has driven the species from lowland areas to the mountains. The good news is that with renewed conservation efforts and the increase in protected reserves the number of giant pandas has begun to increase in some areas. In 2006 scientists believed that the wild population of giant pandas could be as high as 3,000.

What the Toronto Zoo is doing to support giant panda conservation? The Toronto Zoo supports a bamboo and habitat restoration project in China through the Endangered Species Reserve fund in collaboration with the Memphis Zoo. As well the Toronto Zoo employs a Reproductive Physiologist who not only investigates ways to improve the reproduction of endangered species will utilize her expertise for our very own breeding program for Er Shun and Da Mao.

Mountain Forest Dwellers

Giant pandas live in mountain forests with a dense undergrowth of bamboo, which is their main source of food.
The giant panda has lived in bamboo forests for several million years and is a highly specialized animal, with unique adaptations. About the size of an American black bear, giant pandas have large molar teeth and strong jaw muscles for crushing tough bamboo. Although these chunky, lumbering animals are undeniably adorable,
its best to view them from a distance, as giant pandas can be as dangerous as any other bear.

The Bamboo Diet

In the wild, a giant panda's diet is 99% bamboo. The other 1% consists of other grasses/herbs and occasionally small prey animals. At the Toronto Zoo, the giant pandas will be fed a diet that consists of fresh bamboo, leaf eater biscuits, apples, and occasionally sugar cane or icicles as a treat. Fresh bamboo will be 80 - 90% of the giant panda's diet and they will be offered between 42 to 64 kilograms (93 to 141 pounds) of bamboo each day. A giant panda's digestive system is more similar to that of a carnivore than a herbivore, and therefore most of the bamboo goes undigested, passing quickly through the digestive tract (giant pandas relieve themselves dozens of times a day). To make up for eating rather indigestible food, a giant panda needs to consume a comparatively large amount of it in order to extract enough nutrients. In order to obtain this, a giant panda must spend 10 to 16 hours a day foraging and eating. The rest of the time they spend mostly sleeping and resting. Approximately 600 to 900 kilograms (1,322 to 1,984 pounds) of fresh bamboo will be delivered to the Toronto Zoo's Giant Panda Experience per week and stored in cold storage refrigerators.


The giant panda was not known outside China (and probably hardly known within China) until 1869 when Père Armand David, missionary naturalist and explorer, first described a giant panda specimen, that had been shot by Chinese hunters, to the western world. But, it was not until 1916 that the first westerner, Hugo Weigold, saw a live giant panda. After that, it was another 14 years before the next sighting was reported. Once discovered, the killing of giant pandas became a goal of western museum collectors and hunters, beginning with Kermit and Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., sons of Teddy Roosevelt, who shot a giant panda on an expedition sponsored by the Chicago Field Museum. In 1936, Ruth Harkness, widow of the wealthy adventurer William Harkness, was the first person to export a giant panda alive to the USA. This panda, Su Lin, ended up at Chicago's Brookfield Zoo, where she died of pneumonia in 1938. Over the next 15 years at least 16 giant pandas were exported to western zoos, but these zoos did not have the expertise to properly look after them nor fresh bamboo readily available, therefore none survived beyond 10 years of age.

The exportation of giant pandas from China stopped in 1949 with the Cultural Revolution and the formation of the People's Republic of China. A few animals were sent to zoos in Europe and North Korea. The re-initiation of diplomatic relations between China and the USA resulted in a 1972 gift of two giant pandas to the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington, DC. Similar state gifts of giant pandas then went to Japan, France, the UK, Mexico, Spain and Germany.

Today, the North American zoos that have pandas include: the Smithsonian's National Zoo (Washington, DC), San Diego Zoo (California), Zoo Atlanta (Georgia), Memphis Zoo (Tennessee), and Chapultepec Zoo (Mexico City).


Today, wild pandas live only in portions of six isolated mountain ranges in central China, specifically in the provinces of Sichuan, Gansu and Shanxi. They live in temperate montane forests with dense stands of bamboo at altitudes of 1,500 to 3,000 meters above sea level. In the past, their ancestors ranged throughout most of southern and eastern China, with fossils indicating presence as far south as Myanmar and Vietnam and stretching north nearly to Beijing.


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, giant pandas are able to subsist on a diet of bamboo from which they derive little protein and little energy. The panda's molars 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 shelter temporarily in hollow trees, rock crevices and caves during the winter.


In the wild, a giant panda's diet is 99% bamboo. The other 1% consists of other grasses and occasionally small rodents or musk deer fawns. At the Toronto Zoo the pandas will be fed a diet that will consist of bamboo, leaf eater biscuits, dog chow, apples and vitamins. Bamboo will make up 80 – 90% of their diet and they will be offered 42 to 64 kg of bamboo each day. A giant panda's digestive system is more similar to that of a carnivore than a herbivore, and therefore most of the bamboo goes undigested, passing quickly through the 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. In order to obtain this much food a panda must spend 10 to 16 hours a day foraging and eating. The rest of its time is spent mostly sleeping and resting. Approximately 600 to 900 kg of bamboo will be delivered to the Zoo three times a week. It will be transported and stored in cold storage refrigerators.

Interesting Facts About Bamboo:

When bamboo plants reach maturity they flower and produce seeds, and then the mature plant dies. It takes a long time for these seeds to grow into plants large enough for pandas to eat. Giant pandas can eat 25 different types of bamboo, but they usually eat only the four or five that grow in their home range. The unusual thing about bamboo is that all of the plants of one species growing in an area will bloom and die at the same time. When those plants die, pandas move to another area. But now, with humans taking up much of the panda's habitat, pandas are often unable to move to another area and may face starvation.

Reproduction and Development:

Female giant pandas are monoestrous, which means they have only one reproductive cycle per year (usually March to May) and that is the only time the female is receptive to the male and that is only for a period of 24 to 72 hours. Calls and scents attract males and females to each other.

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 mother's uterine wall, but instead "floats" round 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. As a result, the actual gestation period of giant pandas is not exactly known. 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 for their young, usually in August and September.

Females may give birth to two panda cubs, but only one is cared for by the mother, likely because she is unable to suckle both. The dependence of a young panda on their mother prohibits breeding the following spring so that a female will only produce an offspring every other year.

Panda cubs are born blind and extremely immature, weighing only 80-200 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 its mother's size. After about a month, the typical black and white colour pattern develops. They do not open their eyes until they are 6 to 8 weeks of age and are not able to crawl until about three months of age. They are fully weaned at 8 to 9 months of age. Most pandas leave their mothers when she conceives again, usually at about 18 months of age. Giant pandas are ready to breed between 4 - 8 years of age and may be reproductive until about age 20. Within zoos and breeding centers, artificial insemination is used to produce offspring from non-compatible pairs and mates separated by long distances in order to maintain genetic diversity. Cryopreserved sperm is able to be shipped between institutions for artificial insemination.

If two cubs are born the mother will only look after one of them, so in captivity keepers will help raise any twin cubs using a method called "twin swapping". One baby is left with the mother and the keepers switch the twins every few days so each one gets care and milk directly from the mother.

Threats to Survival:

Giant pandas are listed as Endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Endangered Species. 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 the pandas' habitat and to support breeding programs. Logging has been banned in these reserves and reforestation programs are being implemented to reclaim agricultural areas. 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 in 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 supports giant panda conservation projects through the Toronto Zoo's Endangered Species Reserve Fund.

Toronto Zoo Research Plans:

The Toronto Zoo will co-operate with other zoos that have giant pandas to expand the numbers needed for scientific research and collaboration efforts. This will involve studies in animal behavior, enrichment, nutrition, veterinary science, and reproduction.

The Toronto Zoo has an extensive Behavioral Enrichment Program. Giant panda behavioral enrichment studies will be designed and conducted.

The Toronto Zoo's Wildlife Nutrition Centre will coordinate studies in giant panda physiology and nutrition as well as bamboo propagation.

The Toronto Zoo offers a three year Doctor of Veterinary Science (DVSc) post graduate program with the University of Guelph. There will be an opportunity for studies related to the giant panda program. Breeding of giant pandas in captivity has been difficult for a variety of reasons, however giant pandas are one of the few species where assisted reproductive technologies have been instrumental in improving reproductive success. Use of urinary hormone monitoring techniques for estrus detection and artificial insemination techniques with fresh and frozen-thawed sperm has resulted in many successful births over the past 10 years at various zoos and breeding facilities around the world. Despite these successes, further research is still necessary to ensure the long-term preservation of giant pandas in captivity and in the wild. The Toronto Zoo's reproductive physiology program has the equipment and technical expertise to play a major role in contributing to the preservation of this species.

Panda Facts:

  • 99% of a giant panda's diet consists of bamboo
  • A giant panda's digestive system is more similar to that of a carnivore than a herbivore, yet they have adapted to a vegetarian diet of bamboo
  • A giant panda may eat 12-38 kg of bamboo a day
  • In the wild, a giant panda spends 10 to 16 hours a day foraging and eating. The rest of its time is spent mostly sleeping and resting
  • Female giant pandas are only receptive to breeding once a year for a period of 24 to 72 hours
  • A giant panda is born pink, hairless, blind and is 1/900th the size of its mother (about the size of a stick of butter)
  • Unique physical features that help pandas to hold, crush and eat bamboo are broad, flat molar teeth and a enlarged wrist bone that functions as an opposable thumb
  • Giant pandas do not hibernate like other bears do
  • Giant pandas make a bleating sound similar to the sound a lamb or young goat (kid) would make

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