Giant pandas are among the world's best loved animals. They are fixtures of animal stories for children, an inspiration for toys, objects of diplomacy and propaganda and the symbol of the World Wildlife Fund. They used to roam much of China. Now, they are found only in a few small enclaves. About 1,600 giant pandas live in the wild, and an additional 190 or so (2005) live in captivity in China and zoos around the world.
In China pandas are known as “da xiongmao” (“big bear cats”). Their scientific name is Ailuropoda melanoleuca (“black and white car-footed bear”). For a long time it was thought that racoons, red pandas and giant pandas belonged to the same family in part because red pandas and giant pandas share the same name and both eat bamboo and red pandas and racoons look kind of similar. Recent analysis based on genetics and molecular biology techniques have determined that giant pandas are indeed a member of the bear family while red pandas are so different from bears and racoons they should be put in their own unique groups.
In a definitive study The Giant Panda: A Morphological Study of Evolutionary Mechanisms by D. Dwight Davis concluded: “Every morphological feature examined indicates that the giant panda is nothing more than a high specialized bear.” Pandas differ from other bears in they don’t move around much; their range is smaller; and they are almost purely vegetarian.
Websites and Resources
Good Websites and Sources: San Diego Zoo sandiegozoo.org ; Wikipedia article wikipedia.org and and panda.org ; National Zoo nationalzoo.si.edu ; Pandas International pandasinternational.org ; World Wildlife Fund worldwildlife.org ; National Geographic for Kids kids.nationalgeographic.com/Animals and nationalgeographic.com ; Book: Last Panda by George Schaller (University of Chicago). Facilities: Wolong Giant Panda Protection and Research Center; Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Research Base. Links in this Website: ENDANGERED PANDAS Factsanddetails.com/China ; SICHUAN PROVINCES AROUND CHENGDU, with sections on Wolong and Breeding Centers in Chengdu Factsanddetails.com/China
On Wild Animals in China: Living National Treasures: China lntreasures.com/china ; Animal Info animalinfo.org ; ARKive (do a Search for China or the Animal Species You Want) arkive.org Animal Picture Archives (do a Search for the Animal Species You Want) animalpicturesarchive Endangered Animals in China ifce.org/endanger ; Animals Asia Campaign to Help Animals animalsasia.org ; Plants in China: Flora of China flora.huh.harvard.edu ; Plant Meaning and Symbolism Chinatown Connection
Links in this Website: ANIMALS AND PLANTS IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; PREHISTORIC ANIMALS AND DINOSAURS IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; PANGOLINS, DEER AND TIGERS IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; Factsanddetails.com/China ; SNUB-NOSED AND GOLDEN MONKEYS IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; ALLIGATORS, RIVER DOLPHINS AND GIANT SALAMANDERS IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; CRANES, CORMORANTS AND OTHER BIRDS IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; TIBETAN ANIMALS AND PLANTS Factsanddetails.com/China ; SNOW LEOPARDS Factsanddetails.com/China ; SHAHTOOSH AND CHIRUS Factsanddetails.com/China ; YAKS Factsanddetails.com/China ; PETS IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; DOGS IN CHINA Factsanddetails.com/China ; CHINESE DOG BREEDS Factsanddetails.com/China ; WEIRD FOODS IN CHINA NO. 1 Factsanddetails.com/China ; WEIRD FOODS IN CHINA NO. 2 Factsanddetails.com/China ; ANIMAL PARTS AND CHINESE MEDICINE Factsanddetails.com/China
Early History of the Panda
Pandas are thought to have diverged from the main bear line 15 million to 25 million years ago. Between 20 million and 40 million years ago red pandas and racoons split from a common ancestor that also produced bears. Animals similar to pandas lived between three million years and half million years ago. They were carnivores. The discovery of the first skull of the earliest known ancestor of the panda was announced in June 2007. The skull was found in a cave in south China and is estimated to be more than 2 million years old. Evidence that the ancestors of pandas were carnivorous can be found in its last upper premolar and first lower molar which are specially adapted for shearing, and are known as carnassials. They are found only in carnivores.
Pandas themselves date back to around 600,000 years ago. At one time they ranged throughout southeast Asia and as far north as Beijing. Pandas are sometimes called living fossils because they date back to the time of the saber-toothed tiger. For many centuries pandas were thought to be a mythical beast like a dragon or unicorn.
China’s oldest poetry, more than 3,000 years old, describes men giving a pelt that seems likely to have been a panda's. Texts from around that time also describe a lumbering black and white animal. By the Han Dynasty pandas were considered symbols of strength and bravery. In A.D. 210, there is a record of an emperor in Xian keeping several as pets. The mother of another Han emperor was buried with the skull of a panda. The poet Bai Juyi (772-846) wrote that pandas possessed magical pelts that could exorcize evil spirits and cure disease. Panda pelts were highly-valued gifts, often associated with royalty, Panda skulls have been found in the tombs of noblemen from this period.
The first report of a panda in the West came in 1869 from Père Armand David, a French missionary priest and explorer, who was shown two female specimens shot by Chinese hunters. He wrote he'd seen "the prettiest kind of animal I know” and said he “wanted to kill this carnivore.” He sent some skins and bones to Paris. Several hunting expedition were launched. They were unable to bag a pandas. Finally in 1929, Theodore Roosevelt's son, Kermit and Theodore Jr., killed a panda on a hunting expedition.
The word pandemonium was coined in 1936 to describe the reception a panda received when it was first shown in the West. The first panda to be seen in Europe and America was a cub named Su-Lin ("something very cute"), brought from Sichuan province by a rich socialite named Ruth Harkness. With extensive media coverage the cub was first displayed at the Chicago zoo, drawing a crowd of 54,000, a number that has yet to be repeated. While cameras clicked away, Harkness, dressed in a fur with a cigarette dangling from her lips, fed the panda with a baby bottle.
Harkness, whose husband had been killed in a panda hunting expedition in China, became a big celebrity. Describing how she found the animal in bamboo thicket, she wrote in her book: "I stumbled blinded, brushing the water from my face and eyes. Then I stopped, frozen in my tracks. From the old dead tree came a baby's whimper." In reality she is believed to have purchased the cub from a Chinese hunter who had reportedly captured the animal for Floyd Tangier Smith, one of Harkness's rivals in the quest to bring back the first live panda.
Before Harkness began her quest for the panda she had never been abroad and never tracked an animal. After her arrival in China she wrote a friend: “I am so damn glad to be alive, and in China, and about to stalk a panda, I could scream and yell and howl with joy.” Tying up much of her inheritance in the project she teamed up with a 22-year-old Chinese hunter who became her lover, and headed off to the mountains of Sichuan from Shanghai with 16 coolies and a cook. Harkness sold Su-Lin to a Chicago zoo for $14,000 (the animal died a year later).
By 1949, 73 pandas had left China and many others had been killed by Western hunters. Pandemonium remains very much alive in China. Images of pandas are stamped on everything from key chains to chocolates. Lesser Panda cigarettes and Pride-band cigarettes both have pictures of a panda on the package. In 2002, the first international panda festival was held.
Scientists say that teddy bears and pandas are so adored by humans because their big eyes, large round head, soft, flat features without a strong nose or chin are similar to features typically found on human babies and that the adoration is a form of the maternal nurturing instinct. [Ibid]
Book: The Lady and the Panda by Vicki Constantine Croke (Random House, 2005).
China’s State Forestry Administration estimates there are 1,600 pandas in the wild, down from 2,500 in the 1970s. They inhabit mountainous regions in the three neighboring provinces of Sichuan (1,200 pandas), Shaanxi (300) and Gansu (100). These pandas are scattered in 24 small populations widely separated by both geographic barriers and human encroachment in the mountains of Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu provinces in China. Thirty-three panda reverses have been set up, covering half of the panda's habitat.
The population of pandas is regarded as stable and healthy. The 1,590 figure is based on a survey by the State Forestry Administration in 2004. Before that the figure used was 1,110 based on a survey in the 1980s. After a census of pandas was taken in 1978, the Chinese announced there were only 1,000 pandas, when actually there were many more, in hope of focusing world wide attention on the plight of the endangered animal.
A study done in 2006 by scientists form Britain’s Cardiff University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences, using new DNA technology to analyze panda feces, estimate there may be more than 3,000 pandas in the wild—twice the number previously thought. One scientists who worked on the study told Reuters, “This findings indicate that the species may have a significantly better chance of long tern viability than recently anticipated, and that this beautiful animal may have a brighter future.”
Panda habitat, the mountains
and bamboo forests of Sichuan
Pandas live in the mountains where China rises up to the Tibetan plateau. The rugged landscape where pandas are found encompasses mountains over 20,000 feet high and valleys as low as 600 feet. The pandas reside mainly in cold, damp coniferous forests with dense, bamboo forests at an elevation of between 1,200 meters and 3,500 meter (4,000 and 11,000 feet). The spend the summer at higher elevations and the rest of the year at lower elevations. Most of the regions inhabited by pandas receive quite a bit of snow in the winter.
The majority of China's pandas live in 28 counties in north and northwestern Sichuan where other rare animals live such as golden monkeys, musk deer, red panda, Asiatic golden cat, clouded leopard, takin (a relative of the musk ox), five species of pheasant, many songbirds and wide variety of butterflies, moths and plants. About 230 pandas live in Qin Ling mountains in Shaanxi province.
Sichuan sits on one of the world's 25 biodiversity hot spots, the Qionglai- Minshan mountains. Special conditions that make the region unique are a byproduct of the area's wet climate and unusual topography, comprising ranges of mountains near the earthquake-prone Tibetan plateau. The ecological conditions and climate mean the panda's natural habitat has in some areas remained unspoiled for the last 8 million years.
Bamboo forest are generally too thick and impenetrable for humans, and making observation of pandas in the wild is very difficult. Naturalist George Schaller spent two months trekking before he finally saw a panda in the wild. He spent several years studying the pandas and on average saw one only once a month even though he was looking for them in the forest everyday.
There has never been a panda attack reported on a human in the wild. Most of the people that live around the panda’s habitat are Tibetan and Qiang.
Pandas are large plump animals. They have larger and rounder heads than most bears but otherwise their basic shape and body resembles that of other bears. An average panda is about five feet to six feet in length including its tail, and weighs between 185 and 245 pounds. Males and females are identically marked but males tend to be 10 percent to 20 percent bigger In metric terms adult giant pandas stand 60 to 80 centimeters at the shoulder and weigh between 70 and 130 kilograms. Their head and body is 1.2 to 1.5 meters. The tail is about 13 centimeters long.
The average life span of a male panda in the wild is about 15 years. Some have lived into their 30s in zoos. A panda at a zoo in Guilin lived to the age of 36. Many pandas die from internal parasites and genetic defects. They also develop arthritis, get testicular cancer, suffer from kidney disease and develop cataracts and go blind before they die. Common ailments suffered by pandas include roundworms, indigestion and lung disease.
Pandas have white heads with black ears and eye patches. Their body has a white back ground with black legs, feet, chest and shoulders. Their bushy five-inch-long (13-centimeter-long) tail is black. Their coloring makes them very conspicuous at close range but makes them hard to see at distance when there is no snow on the ground. Sometimes conservationist come across rare brown-and-white pandas. Chinese naturalist Pan Wenshi of Beijing University believes it possible that the animals that preceded pandas were brown and white and the rare pandas may be the result of a "recessive gene that may date back two and half million years to the panda's origin."
Pandas have a sixth digit (toe) on their paws which acts like a thumb to help pandas pick up objects and grasp and manipulate bamboo between the grooves in their paws and digits. Pads of skin strip the leaves while the stalk is held in the panda’s mouth. This "pseudothumb" is actually a moveable, enlarged wrist bone. Pandas can hold apples like humans.
Pandas have a thick pelt of hair, offering protection in the cold winters of its natural habitat. The coarse, oily outer hairs are up to 10 centimeters long and are extremely dense. The wooly underfur becomes somewhat spare on the belly.
Pandas have a clumsy pigeon-toes walk but can move on all fours with great speed through the forest environment where they live. They can stand erect on their hind legs but generally don’t walk. Their front limbs are more muscular than the rear ones. Pandas are very flexible and can contort themselves it seems to almost any shape and relax in any position they find themselves in.
Pandas can not see very well and are nearsighted. Because they spend much of their time in bamboo thickets that resemble the interior of corn fields, even if they could see well they could only see about five feet in front them. The pupils of panda eyes are catlike slits. All other bears have round eyes. The acuity of their sense of sound is not well understood but is believed to be fairly developed.
Pandas have a highly developed sense of smell and communicate through chemical signals: the male through a huge scent gland under the tail; the female through a similar scent gland and chemicals in her urine. Males also use urine-borne signals that they spread by urinating on their paws then rubbing their ears and rubbing vegetation.
Pandas have very large olfactory regions in their brains. They can sense what happening with pandas up to several miles away by using their sense of smell. A panda's padded paws and tail are seemingly designed as "brushes for spreading its scent."
Spectrometer analysis of pandas scents shows that they have very complex chemical combination that gives off a number messages such as identity, sex, sexual receptively and health. Males marking their territory apply a waxy goo to keep the scent alive for months.
Panda Daily Routine
Pandas are active for 14 hours a day and sleep in two to four hour stints. They may forage at any time of the day but there are peaks of activity around dawn and in the late afternoon.
Panda spends 98 percent of their time eating or sleeping. The other two percent, according to a Chinese book, is spent “wondering and enjoying.” Their daily routine consists of laying around and eating, falling asleep, and waking up and eating some more and defecating up to 50 times a day. When they get up to move on they can leave behind as much as 20 pounds of dropping. They basically spend their whole lives doing this except when they mate and give birth and care for their young.
Pandas don’t hibernate in the winter like many other bears that live in areas with cold winters in part because they need to keep eating to keep themselves going and can not store up fat like other bears. Instead of hibernating they descend to lower elevations where it isn’t so cold and they can continue to feed. In nasty snowstorms they may take refuge in the hollow of a tree or a rock crevice.
Pandas fear few predators other than man. The thick bamboo thickets where they live offer good protection. Their short, squat shape allows them to slip more easily through the undergrowth than say a leopard. Pandas generally move in a very restrained way, presumably to conserve energy and spend a lot of time just lying around. When threatened they trot rather than gallop, like other bears, and generally make a beeline for the nearest tree to climb.
Pandas are good climbers and very agile in trees. They often look more awkward on land than they do in trees. Pandas take to trees to scout an area, escape intruders or even take a nap. They skillfully climb upwards by digging their claws into the trunk and pulling themselves up and descend trees, sliding downward in fits and starts, rump first. Pandas sometimes mark trees with their claws. Adults don’t take to trees that often but cubs often spend hours each day in in the safety of trees while their mother forages for food.
Pandas are curious. Scientists believe this is because they are able to eat so many different things and like to check things out to see if they are edible. Pandas in the wild are often dirty. They often dig up pieces of sod and rub it on their bodies and roll in wet earth until they are black. They seem to do this to pick up scents. Pandas also bathe and often take to water in the summer to cool off.
Individual pandas often display very individualist behavior. Some are shy and prefer to be with themselves. Some are more social, active and rambunctious. Some are picky eaters. Others tear through their food. Young pandas often display behavior that is similar to that of their mothers. Asked about their personalities, one scientist at Wolong told Atlantic Monthly: “Just like human beings! Some are lonely. Some are interested only in food, and once they get it they relax.”
Pandas spend a lot of time lying on their back or side, scratching themselves with all four limbs. They use their forefeet to rub their faces and necks and scratch places their paws won’t reach by rubbing themselves on the ground or against a tree or some other object. Pandas mark their territories with anal gland scents, urine and claw scratchings. They often occupy overlapping territories but avoid trouble with other pandas by using different areas at different times.
Because it is difficult to observe pandas in the wild most of what is known them comes from observing them in captivity or zoos.
Panda Social Behavior
Pandas are generally solitary animals, except for mothers and young. Sometimes they live in a loosely affiliated group of 12 animals, and there might be three such groups in a river valley. A panda group usually consists of breeding males and females, their cubs, and immature males. Cubs often move to another group (perhaps a natural adaption to prevent in breeding).
When two panda meet they either avoid one another or fight. In either case they make a lot of noise—squeals, bleats yips, chirps, moans and barks—but they don’t roar like other bears. Eleven different pandas vocalizations have been identified.
Unlike black bears, grizzlies and other bears that often cover a lot of ground in their search for food, pandas stay close to home, where their food sources are. Their ranges are small, varying from 1.6 to 2.6 square miles. They share all parts of their range with other pandas, except for females who maintain a 100-acre area where other females aren't welcome.
Because of their percieved solitary nature, captive pandas in zoos were often kept apart form one other. This turned out to be a mistake. Now zoo pandas are allowed to hang out with each other and scientists have observed they interact with each other about half of their waking hours, playing with one another and often eating and sleeping near one another. Captive adolescent pandas are quite active and social.
Pandas are most likely to exhibit friendly behavior and engage in social play in the spring as they warm up for the mating season. Activities include somersaulting, non-sexual mounting, wrestling, paw-swatting and playfully biting each other’s ears. Humans find this kind of playful behavior to be very endearing.
Pandas give off few visual cues. Their expressions don’t change, their tails don’t wag and their ears don’t perk up. Most communication is done through scents and to a lesser extent sound. Pandas use scent to define their territories and avoid conflict by letting others know where they are there. Pandas spread their scents by squatting and rubbing their rump and tail or back and rump on vertical objects, cricking their leg and pissing like a dog and even standing on their head, facing a vertical surface and rubbing their body against it.
Cornered pandas or mother pandas with children can be quite ferocious. When threatened mother pandas roar, huff and snort. Most aggressive behavior though is by males competing over females in the breeding season. Occasionally males and females in zoos fight during breeding time but this is thought to occur because the male doesn’t have any males to fight with.
Describing a charge by a panda mother, George Schaller wrote in The Last Panda, "Suddenly we see bamboo sway 30 feet ahead, and Zhen [the panda] turns to leave, abruptly changes here mind, and giving two loud roars and several snorts, trots towards us...I charge through the bamboo to a nearby tree, a small one six inches in diameter, and scramble up...After she passes beneath my feet she halts, huffing and snorting, and listens, for one long minute then turns towards her den tree."
A fight between males begins with a stare down by the two rivals. It is not unusual for one male to back down at this stage. If the two decide to take their fight to the next level they circle each other and try to gain an advantageous position, growling, moaning and baring their teeth, and making paw sways. One may rear up in gesture that often represents a final gesture to avoid an all out fight. If neither backs down a real fight with biting and lunging begins
Young males sometimes are badly injured in fights with older males for "breeding rights." Females, Chinese naturalist Pan Wenshi wrote, "can be more aggressive with one another. Each has a core area where neighboring females trespass at their peril. We once saw [a panda] chase an intruder out of her area, bloodying the interloper's face."
Panda Eating Habits
Pandas eat bamboo about 99 percent of the time but will eat meat, human food or other plants if given the chance. Pandas have been observed eating vines, horsetails, irises, crocuses, fir bark, and certain kids of tufted grass. They eat carrion , eggs and grubs are eaten when available. Local people claim to have seen them climb trees to snatch honey from a beehive.Evidence that the ancestors of pandas were carnivorous can be found in its last upper premolar and first lower molar which are specially adapted for shearing, and are known as carnassials. They are found only in carnivores.
Pandas eat mostly at dawn and dusk and sleep in dense bamboo thickets. Adult pandas produce about 20 kilograms of feces a day. "They are like a machine that is churning out organic fertilizer," said a Chinese man who grows tea using the feces. "They keep eating and they keep producing feces." "Also, they absorb less than 30 percent of the nutrition from the food, and that means more than 70 percent of the nutrients are passed out in their feces. Just like green tea, bamboo contains an element that can prevent cancer ad enhance green’s anti-cancer effects, if it is used as fertilizer for tea.”
Wildlife is scarce in the bamboo forest, and pandas are generally too slow to catch anything even if there were. There have been reports of pandas eating fish, pikas and rodents and entering logging camps to steal meat. Some Chinese say that pandas catch boom rats by stomping on the ground above their burrows and catching the rats in their mouth when they escape from their burrows.
In 2011 The Telegraph reported: The moment a wild panda turns carnivore has been filmed in Pingwu County, southwest China's Sichuan Province, for the first time. Captured on an infrared camera in the Laohegou forest area, the panda appears to find a dead animal in a gulley and gnaws on its bones for two hours. It is the first time a panda eating meat has been clearly seen, according to local workers in the forest area. Chen Youping, deputy director of Forestry Department of Pingwu County, told The Telegraph: "The reason why pandas eat meat is because it used to eat meat millions of years ago."Now they mainly eat bamboos, but we occasionally see bones of dead animals in pandas' excrement during our years of field work." [Source: The Telegraph website]
Pandas in captivity eat sugar-cane leaves, bread, milk, apples, eggs, rice gruel, carrots, high-fiber biscuits, and nutritional supplements. Many are fed cream-colored biscuits made of bamboo and enriched with vitamins. Before these were invented many captive pandas in China subsisted off steamed bread. The cost of supplying pandas with the kinds of bamboo they like can be prohibitively expensive.
Pandas and Bamboo
Bamboo, the main panda food source, ironically is one of the most indigestible members of the plant family. It is basically giant grass with blades that are like pieces of wood. Mature stems are so permeated with silicon that they will dull the sharpest and strongest knife. As a result few animals eat bamboo. Any species that does it is going to have a plentiful food supply (bamboo is found in a lot of places), which offers an evolutionary explanation why pandas eat it.
Pandas feed on different parts of 30 or more bamboo species, feeding on new shoots in the spring, leaves in the summer and stems in the winter. They seem to be most fond of arrow bamboo, which grows in bamboo forest at an altitude between 2,500 and 4,000 meters.
Pandas seem to negotiate their way through the forest by eating their way through the dense bamboo. They typically eat in a sitting position, nap when satiated, move on a little further and repeat the process. On average a panda eats about half of its body weight each day—between 22 to 40 pounds of leaves and stems, and up to 85 pounds of shoots (which are 90 percent water). A slow metabolism allows them to get the most out of their nutrient-poor diet.
When eating, pandas pick the tenderest shoots and, using their front and back paws together, strip off the leaves, and peel off the tough outer sheaths. The peeled stems are fed into the mouth, and chewed a section at a time, with an average of six or seven chews per mouthful, leaving behind a pile of peelings in the panda’s lap. Schaller once counted 3,481 chewed off stems. To take in this much food pandas have to essentially eat all the time.
Pandas eat 16 species of bamboo. In the Qin Ling mountains in Shaanxi province, pandas primarily eat two species of bamboo—one that thrives in the higher elevations and another that is found primarily at low elevations. They often eat leaves, which contain the highest levels of digestible protein. In zoos, pandas will reject any leaves and stems that have begun to dry out.
To handle such a large amount of tough food, pandas have large, muscular jaws equipped with enormous large, flat molars for grinding the bamboo. They have claws that are ideal for hooking stems and opposable “thumbs” that allow the pandas to hold te bamboo while they eat it. Only pandas, monkeys and apes can bend a thumb or thumb-like appendage to grasp. A panda’s thumb is actually a projection of its wrist bone that is mobile and fully muscled. It sits at the base of the front paw and can press against the paw, allowing the panda to hold bamboo like a piece of celery and shove into their mouths. When they eat pandas often adopt a position that is very similar to a sitting human
Pandas have a very strong bite force—higher than tigers or lions—presumably because they need a lot of force to bite through pieces of bamboo.
Why Do Pandas Eat Bamboo?
Why do pandas eat bamboo? It seems bizarre that a creature whose ancestors were carnivores would turn towards an almost exclusively vegetarian diet, and in particular to a nutritional source as poor as bamboo. It has to spend more than half of every day sitting and eating just to extract enough calories. [Source: Henry Nicholls, The Telegraph, September 28, 2010]
When you think about it objectively, though, the prolific growth rate of these hardy plants, their year-round availability and widespread distribution (until humans appeared on the scene) actually made bamboo a pretty attractive snack. And the panda goes about extracting what little nutrition there is in great style: a sixth digit fashioned from its wrist bone allows it to grasp at stems and strip off leaves; its hefty skull and strong teeth provide the means to crush through the tough bark to the goodness within; and its digestion is aided by an intimate symbiosis with some very powerful gut microbes. So effective are they that Japanese scientists were able to use bacteria extracted from panda faeces to achieve “the complete digestion of kitchen refuse” – a finding for which they rightly won the biology category in the 2009 Ig Nobel awards for improbable research.
Interestingly, when geneticists sequenced the panda’s entire genome in 2009, they found a messed-up gene that means they probably can’t taste flesh, which may explain why they don’t seek it out that often. But when the opportunity presents itself, pandas will happily tuck in. Researchers carrying out the first proper fieldwork in the 1980s found droppings that contained hair from a golden monkey and the hair, bones and hooves of a musk deer. The panda genome still contains all the enzymes needed for digesting meat, and these rare lapses into carnivory might be crucial in providing important trace nutrients that are absent from bamboo. They have also helped researchers, who have baited traps with goat heads and pig bones to lure and then collar their quarry.
Panda Digestive System
The panda oddly enough is a carnivore not an herbivore: its stomach and intestines are adapted for meat and its teeth are so strong they can chew through metal. The panda esophagus has a tough, horny lining to protect it from sharp, bamboo splinters. The stomach is thick and muscular and gizardlike. The rest of the digestive system is similar or that of other carnivores but because it doesn’t eat meat is lightly used.
Pandas don’t have a specialized gut like cows and deer for breaking down fibrous material. To get enough nourishment from the relatively nutrient-free bamboo, the panda has a stomach like a conveyor belt. Food is barely chewed, only 17 percent of it is digested, compared to 80 percent for most herbivores, and it passes through the body in as little as five hours. After a panda has sat in one place for a while it is not uncommon for it leave behind seven to nine kilograms of woody, spindle-shaped droppings. On average a panda produces 13 kilograms of droppings a day.
Japanese researchers have found a bacteria in panda dung that has shown to be more effective in breaking down organic garbage than almost any other known substance. In one experiment the bacteria broke down 100 kilograms of waste into three kilograms after 17 weeks, producing only water and carbon dioxide as by products. The researchers discovered the bacteria and found 270 other kinds of microbes in panda dung they received from a zoo.
Pandas often have digestive tract disorders. Mother pandas constantly move the infants around and roll them from side to side to prevent their intestines from becoming flattened or distorted. Young pandas often suffer from bloating when bamboo gets stuck in their digestive system.
In the wild, pandas generally don't have any problem breeding. A female panda usually mates with the dominate male in her range and sometimes after she mates she has to climb trees to get away from other male pursuers.
Sometimes males fight for the chance to mate with available females. Dominant males often fight to control four or five females. When a fight occurs the female often climbs a tree and waits until one of the male emerges victorious.
Females reach sexual maturity when they are around five; males when they are around six or seven. Females generally give birth three or four times in their lifetime. It appears to be a myth that pandas are lousy lovers. A long-term field project, run by Chinese scientists, according to The Telegraph, has revealed that they are actually extremely good at reproduction.
Female pandas are only fertile for three or four days and are reported to be very choosy when selected a mate. Females giver birth are about the same rate as North American brown bears: once every other year for about 15 years. Males have extremely small penises and this contributes to low insemination rates in the wild. Only one in five panda females are capable of producing fully developed ova at a given time.
Pandas usually mate in the spring. Females usually go into heat in April and they are generally only fertile for about 72 hours. They indicate their readiness to mate with moans, bleats and barks. Males gather, chase and fight each other for access to females. In the weeks before a female becomes receptive she is very restless, endlessly rolling and rubbing the ground, bathing more than other times. She chirps, bleats and grunts more and leaves here scent by running around constantly. Her nipples and genitals begin to swell and redden.
When a female is receptive she advertises the fact through emitting a distinctive sound, scattering chemical signals in her urine in bamboo thickets and forests over a large area, and rubbing a gland near her tail against the ground to deposit a sticky substance with an odor detectable to other pandas. Her sexual organs change color: turning red, then white. High estrogen levels in her urine indicate she is fertile.
Females usually wait in an area for males to arrive and often mate with several males. Chinese naturalist Pan Wenshi of Beijing University told National Geographic, "In the Qin Ling mountains, individuals of both sexes coexist in areas usually covering about two square miles. But before spring mating, males expand their ranges to about five square miles, encompassing the area of several females. A dominant male may control his mating grounds for three or four years. Most other males keep their distance, and combat is rare."
The panda courting ritual involves chasing one another around and up trees. The female performs a strange kind of backward walking in which she backs up a few steps and tosses and shakes her head. As the time to mate nears the female becomes more passive and even makes advances to the male with her tail up and her head down. If the male doesn’t respond she may fall onto to her back and raise her paws playfully to attract his attention.
During copulation the male stands almost upright behind the female who is on all four with her rear up and her head slightly down. The male bleats and makes mouthing gestures and mounts and dismounts numerous times before actually completing the act. One group of researchers counted 48 mounts in a three day period, with only one four-minute intromission during that time. After a day or two of this the pandas separate and return to their solitary lives.
With pandas size matters. One male 150-kilogram male panda at a zoo in Chiang Mai, Thailand was deemed too fat to mate with a 115-kilogram female at the zoo and put on a diet of bamboo leaves.
The gestation period for a panda is around 160 days. A fertilized panda egg becomes a 16-cell embryo which free-floats in the womb for one to five months before attaching itself to the wall of the uterus. The period is much longer than for other mammals (that usually have eggs that attach to the wall right away) and make artificial insemination difficult. It is very difficult to tell if a giant panda is pregnant because females give many false signs.
The egg only attaches to the wall 45 days before the cub’s birth. Some scientist say the reason for this is that pandas take in so little nutrients that they can’t support the fetus for much longer than 45 days. This also explains why panda’s are so small when they are born.
After becoming pregnant a female make a den in a hollowed-out standing tree or cave, where she usually gives birth. Sometime nonpregnant females go through “pseudo-pregnancies" in which they display behavioral and hormonal changes similar to a pregnant female but are not pregnant
Infant and mother A female usually gives birth in her den in a hollowed-out standing tree or cave, sometimes letting out a loud squawk when an infant is born. At birth infant pandas weigh only three or four ounces (83 and 190 grams) and are bleating, pink and hairless and look like tiny, pink, blind mice. A three-day-old panda cub is smaller than a human hand and weighs less than a coffee cup. No other non-marsupial animal gives birth to smaller offspring in relation to its size.
About half the time panda females give birth to twins. Because one infant requires so much attention, the mother generally choses one of the twins and let the other die. Mothers often decide within minutes after birth which one they keep and which they reject. One fieldwork study uncovered a dead cub near a mother that was taking care of a healthy cub. Even for the chosen cub the survival chances are not that good. Many pandas die young.
Pandas develop their patches of distinctive white and black fur at about two weeks and reach the weight of a pound after three weeks. At about six weeks the cubs weigh four or five pounds. Their teeth emerge at four weeks, their eyes open at around seven weeks, and their nose turns from pink to black at six months. When they reach the age of two months they are cute white and black fur balls that weigh between five and 12 pounds. As they develop they flip around from back to front; makes puppy-like cries; and leave scent markings.
Infant pandas spend much of their first year of life in their dens, on a floor cushioned with pine boughs. Young pandas generally do not begin walking around until they are four months. At six months they weigh around 22 pounds and are able to climb trees and play with their mother. At the age of nine months, young pandas weigh about 50 pounds and are agile tree climbers.
Infant Pandas and Their Mothers
After a panda cub is born the mother doesn't leave its side—neither eating, drinking or defecating—for a period of five to 25 days. A typical, captive, panda mother will stay with her infant straight for seven days and then leave just for three minutes to get a drink, and not leave to eat for 17 days. Panda infant are vulnerable to cold, rain and attacks from martens, leopards and black bears.
The infants are very small and delicate and are easily crushed by their 200-pound mothers, who handle their young with extraordinary gentleness. Much of the time the mother cradles the infant against her chest. After the crucial 5 to 25 day period is over the mother leaves for hours at a time to eat and regain her strength. This behavior was originally thought to be abandonment.
Panda cubs may stay with their mothers for more than two years. At the age of 18 months young pandas weigh about 120 pounds and are nearing the size of their mothers. Sometimes when a young panda is at this age, it is left to fend for itself after the mother mates. Other times pandas cubs have been observed living with their mothers before they mates and then leave.
Young pandas sleep a lot and do not begin eating bamboo until they are around one year old. They begin crawling around four months and usually nurse for about a year but may nurse until they are 1½ years old. The mothers often have to eat for 14 hours a day to produce enough milk. At the age of nine months cubs begin chewing on bamboo shoots just for practice.
Adolescent pandas often sleep in the safety of trees while their mother forage for food. Sometimes the mother will leave them alone for as long as 52 hours. In the past young pandas found by researchers or hikers were believed to have been abandoned. At one time 35 of the 113 pandas in China’s captive breeding program were "rescued" in the wild. An effort is being made to stop this practice since in all likelihood most of these were cubs seeking safety while their mothers were foraging.
Captive adolescent pandas are quite active and social. Ones at Wolong climb trees, wrestle, hang from branches, fall off branches, push each other off rocks, wack each other in the head. Pandas are regarded as adult when they reach sexual maturity around the age of 5 years old.
Panda Cub Growth
One or two pandas are born after a variable gestation period. Panda experts that it is impossible to accurately predict when a cub will be born. The gestation period is said to range from 80 days to 200 days, because fertilized eggs often float in the womb for a while and there is no firm time for implantation. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, July 7, 2012]
Newborn pandas are pink with sparse white hairs; closed eyes. They are about 18 centimeters long and weigh about 80 to 140 grams. They can cry quite loudly for such small creatures. At one week black patches appear on the skin. At two weeks black hairs begin to grow. Infant pandas spend their time crying, sleeping and suckling. At three weeks, baby pandas begins to crawl. At one month the eyes start to open and they are better at regulating their own body temperature. At two months baby pandas stop crying and suckle three to four times a day. [Source: Washington Post, September 2012]
Since panda cubs are born in a premature state, it is hard to identify the gender even after birth. Newborn cubs are so small and delicate they can easily be crushed under the much larger mother. [Ibid]
At three months young pandas can stand and walk a little; teeth are emerging; eyesight and hearing are improving; and they suckle two to three times a day. At four months their activity increases and they climbs on their mother’s back to play. At five months young pandas trot behind their mother; imitate her eating bamboo; and climb and sit in trees. At six months they begins to eat solid food and suckle one to two times a day. At one year young pandas lose their baby teeth. At two years young pandas in the wild leave their mother and begins fending for themselves.
In the wild the cub stays in the den for four to six weeks and then rides on mothers back and ambles along side her at six months. It is believed its mother teaches the cub how to defend itself—mostly against other pandas—and locate the best arrow bamboo. [Ibid]
Image Sources: Panda images: WWF and CNTO; Red Panda images: ailarus
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated December 2012