20080318-pandaWWf3.jpg 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 Sources: Wikipedia article ; National Zoo ; Pandas International ; World Wildlife Fund Facilities: Wolong Giant Panda Protection and Research Center; Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Research Base; Living National Treasures: China ; Animal Info ; Books: “Last Panda” by George Schaller (University of Chicago, 1993). Famous books about pandas have including are “Trailing the Giant Panda” by Theodore Roosevelt III (1929), “The Lady and the Panda” by Ruth Harkenss (1938), “Men and Pandas” by Desmond and Ramona Morris (1961) and “The Giant Panda: A Morphological Study of Evolutionary Mechanisms” by Delbert Dwight Davis (1964); “The Wilderness Home of the Giant Panda” by W.G. Sheldon (1974).

Early History of Pandas

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 raccoons 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.

Jennifer S. Holland wrote in National Geographic Traveller: Because of gaps in the fossil record, exactly when pandas diverged from other bears isn’t clear. A jaw from Spain puts an early panda relative at 11.6 million years old, while DNA evidence suggests 18 million. And bones from a cave in China indicate giant pandas as we know them are at least two million years old. [Source:Jennifer S. Holland, National Geographic Traveller, August, 2016]

Primal panda first appeared during the in Miocene Period about 8-9 million years ago. In early Pleistocene appeared,beginning 2.6 million years ago, the Ailuropoda Micrta, a panda ancestor appear. Fossils of this prehistoric animal have been were found at Liucheng of Guangxi province, Luoding of Guangdong province, Wushan of Sichuan province, Yangxian of Shaanxi province and Yuanmo of Yunnan province. By the mid and late Pleistocene, 1.25 million to 11,600 ago, years the development of giant pandas reached its final stage. In this period, Ailuropoda Milanoleuea Daconi began to appear, and was found widely distributed in 16 provinces and area in southwest, south, central and northwest China — including Zhou Koudian of Beijing, Shaanxi, Shanxi, Henan, Anhui, Zhejiang, Jiangxi, Fujian, Taiwan, Guangdong, Guangxi, Hunan, Hubei, Guizhou, Sichuan, Yunnan, and also in some other countries like Vietnam and North Myanmar. [Source: Science Museum of China]

null Fossil evidence indicates that in late Miocene Period, about 8 million years ago, the primal panda (Ailuaractos Lufengensis) — an arctoid with a carnassial food habit — lived at the edge of the tropical humid forest around the Lufeng Area in Yunnan Province. This animal looked like a fat fox. It is believed to have evolved from the Agriarcros Goaci, which inhabited humid forests from Hungary to France in Europe.

The primal panda became extinct in late Miocene period and its lineage continued to evolve in central and south China. One branch, which appeared about 3 million years ago, was half the size of the giant panda that we see today, and looked like a fat dog. The fossil of this branch is named as Ailuropoda Micrta. Based on fossil teeth, the Ailuropoda micrta is thought to have evolved into a species of omnivorous animals which partially fed on bamboos.

Around a million years ago, smaller-than-present giant pandas started to extend their living areas to the sub-tropical humid forest, which gradually covered the former living areas of primal pandas around Yunnan, Guangxi and Sichuan. Later on, the giant panda adapted to the life in subtropical bamboo woods and their bodies grew bigger and bigger. Between the 500,000 to 700,000 years ago, giant pandas flourished across a wide area. Among panda ancestors the Ailuropoda Milanoleuca Wulishansis was one eighth the size of the present giant panda. The Ailuropoda Milanoleuea Daconi, of the late Pleistocene Period, which ate bamboo, was about one eighth bigger than that of present giant panda.

Holland wrote: The exact timing and reason for pandas going vegetarian is debated, but those eons of adaptations leave modern pandas with some unique tools, including flat molars for crushing and a thumblike appendage, an extension of the wrist bone, helpful for handling bamboo. Interestingly, they lack any special gut microbes to break down the bamboo that has become 99 percent of their food—one reason they are relatively low-energy animals. [Source: Jennifer S. Holland, National Geographic Traveller, August, 2016]

The Pleistocene period distribution of fossils of giant panda subspecies is rather wide, covering much of eastern and southern China, to the north including the Zhou Koudian site and to the south including Taiwan Island as well as Myanmar, Vietnam and North Thailand. At that time the giant panda lived with the Smilodon (saber-toothed tigers), Stegodon Sinensis Owen (a prehistoric elephant) and Peking Man. During the mid and late Pleistocene Period, great environment changes occurred as large areas of glacier appeared in the Qingling Mountains and mountains to the south. After the Quarternary Glacier appeared — about 18,000 years ago — the number of giant pandas and the fauna associated with them declined. Animals like the Smilodon and Stegodon became extinct and giant panda disappeared in the north, and the distribution of giant panda in the south also shrank.

Giant Panda Numbers and Distribution

In 2021, China’s Ministry of Ecology and Environment said that China’s population of giant pandas was to over 1,800 and the animal was not longer considered “endangered”. Instead it is now classified as “vulnerable” Cui Shuhong, the ministry’s director, said that the panda population growth can be credited to China's reserves. Giant Panda Survey conducted with the help of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in 2014 estimated 1,864 pandas live in the wild, up 17 percent from 2003. Their geographic range increased by nearly 12 in that time, according to the survey. [Source: Marina Pitofsky, USA TODAY, July 12, 2021]

China’s State Forestry Administration estimated there were 1,590 giant pandas in the wild in the mid 2000s, down from 2,500 in the 1970s. At that time they inhabited mountainous regions in the three neighboring provinces of Sichuan (1,200 pandas), Shaanxi (300) and Gansu (100). These pandas were 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.”

According to records and ancient books, about 2,000 years ago, giant pandas were living in many provinces of China, including Hubei, Shanxi, Gansu, Hunan, Shaanxi, Yunnan, Sichuan, Guizhou and Guangxi. Due to the consistent expansion of human activity the habitat of the giant panda gradually shrank and today they are only found on the southern side of Qingling Mountains, in southern part of Gansu province and in the mountains and valleys in the northwest of Sichuan basin. [Source: Science Museum of China]

According to a survey in the early 2000s, giant pandas lived in the six mountain mountain-systems: 1) southern side of Qinling Mountains, 2) Mingshan Mountains, 3) Qionglai Mountains, 4 and 5 ) Major-Minor Xiangling Mountains and 6) the Liangshan Mountains, and were divided into about 20-isolated genus groups. Due primarily to the constant cutting of forests from the 1950s to the 1990s, four fifth of the habitat of giant pandas has been lost

Giant Panda Habitat

20080318-chongqing cnto.jpg
Panda habitat, the mountains
and bamboo forests of Sichuan

Giant pandas live in the mountains where China rises up to the Tibetan plateau. The rugged landscape where pandas are found encompasses mountains over 6,100 meters (20,000 feet) high and valleys as low as 183 meters (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 bamboo that giant pandas eat grows best beneath big, old trees. It is also nice for the animals to have trees with holes that can be used for hiding cubs. 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.

Giant Panda Characteristics


Giant 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.

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.

Giant Panda Senses

Giant 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. Males use their sense of smell to avoid each other and to find females for mating in the spring.

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.

Giant Panda Digestive System

The giant 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.

Panda Lifespan and Health Concerns

The average life span of a male giant panda in the wild is about 15 years. Several 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. In 2015 several pandas died from canine distemper virus in the same rescue center in northwestern China. Some other pandas were diagnosed with canine distemper but recovered.

Diseases that impact pandas include 1) digestive system ailments that cause vomitting, diarrhea, and blood in stool, and ileuses (lack of the normal muscle contractions of the intestines); 2) Respiratory system diseases such as colds and upper respiratory tract infection; 3) Nervous system diseases such as falling sickness; and 4) blood and circulatory ailments such hemolytic anemia and seasonal febrile diseases. Pandas also suffer from all kinds of tumors, endoparasites and ectoparasites diseases, skin diseases and traumas. They are particularly affected by ascarids and tick acarids. [Source: Science Museum of China]

Among the natural enemies that pandas have to concern themselves with are Asian golden cats, leopards, jackals, wolves and yellow-throated martens, which will mainly attack the cubs or sick, weak and aging pandas. Because the full-grown and strong giant pandas still haven't lost the ferocity of their flesh-eating ancestors, they will not be afraid to face their enemies.

The oldest giant panda living in captivity — Jia Jia — died at the age of 38 at Ocean Park, its Hong Kong zoo home in October 2016. She was euthanized after her health rapidly deteriorated over two weeks, her owners said. Reuters reported: Jia Jia, whose name means "good", had been gifted to Hong Kong in 1999 along with another panda, to mark the second anniversary of the city's handover from former colonial ruler Britain. In recent weeks Jia Jia's food consumption had sharply declined from over 10 kilograms (22 pounds) to less than three kilograms (six pounds) per day and her average weight dropped from 71 kilograms (156 pounds) to around 67 kilograms (147 pounds). [Source: Reuters, October 17, 2016]

"Over the past few days, she has been spending less time awake and showing no interest in food or fluids. Her condition became worse this morning. Jia Jia was not able to walk about without difficulties and spent the day laying down," Ocean Park said in a statement posted on its website. "Her state became so debilitated that based on ethical reasons and in order to prevent suffering, veterinarians...agreed to a humane euthanasia for Jia Jia."

Basi was a female giant panda at the Fuzhou Giant Panda Research Center in southern China.. After Jia Jia's death she was the oldest living panda in captivity. Basi was the original model of ‘Panpan’, the mascot for the first Asian games. She died in September 2017, at the age of 37,

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.

Last updated July 2022

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