Ailuropoda melanoleuca, meaning "cat-footed, black and white animal".
Although giant pandas are undeniably adorable, it's best to view them from a distance, as giant pandas can be as dangerous as any other bear. They have large molar teeth and strong jaw muscles for crushing tough bamboo all day long. Unlike other bears, pandas do not hibernate, but will shelter temporarily in hollow trees, rock crevices and caves during the winter.
The giant panda is a national treasure in China, 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 1,864 left in the wild.
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
Giant pandas live in a few mountain ranges with dense undergrowth of bamboo in central China. They once lived in lowland areas, but farming, forest clearing, and other development now restrict giant pandas to the mountains, thus making bamboo their main diet.
Giant pandas have now lived in bamboo forests for several million years and because of this have become a highly specialized animal, with unique adaptations. 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.
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.
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 are 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).
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. 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.
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.
Interesting Fact 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.
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).
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.
Did you know that the giant panda is an Endangered Species?
Giant pandas are listed as Endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Endangered Species with only approximately 1,864 left in the wild.
One of the main reasons that pandas have become endangered is habitat destruction. 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. 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. While pandas are classed as carnivores, they have adapted to a vegetarian diet eating predominantly bamboo. Pandas feed on several varieties of bamboo at different times of the year and 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.
Aside from their dependence on bamboo, the giant panda has a low birth rate of one cub every two years. While they do have natural predators, jackals, leopards, and the yellow-throated marten which eats their young, their most deadly predator is man. 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.
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. 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.
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. To support giant panda conservation click here