The Giant Panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) is one of the most iconic, endearing, and amazing animals that has captured hearts all over the world. They have an interesting history and unique physiology for being a bear that eats only vegetation. While their numbers are increasing, and China has put a priority on the preservation of this species, they still need our help.
The Giant Panda can be called the Panda Bear, or simply Panda. While not a typical bear, genetic analysis has confirmed that this species is a member of the bear family Ursidae. Bears are a relatively young family branching off nearly 25 million years ago. Panda’s branched off on their own over 22 million years ago, whereas most other bear species branched off around 10 million years ago.
Evidence indicates Panda-like bears lived in Europe around 10 million years ago and eventually found their way to China around 2 million years ago. The range of the Giant Panda has been modern day China and other portions of Southeast Asia. Today, Pandas only inhabit 1% of their historical range. Now down to 20 isolated patches in the Minshan and Qinling mountains.
Panda Bear physiology does not differ much from other bears despite being herbivores. They can grow to be 4 to 6 feet long (2 m) and can weigh 220-330 lbs. (160 kg). Their large saucer shape faces are due to extremely strong jaw muscles, helping them chew bamboo, which makes up 99% of their diet. The bamboo they eat has little nutritional value (~ 17%) and is attributed to the animal’s low energy. They must eat most of the day, on average 20-40 lbs per day, and defecate up to 40x per day. They are truly unique among Ursidae.
Other facts include:
- Live around 20-25 years in the wild, with some living into their 30s
- Teeth are specialized with back molars capable of chewing and crushing bamboo
- Have an extra (6th) opposable thumb to help grasp bamboo
- Like to sit up and eat
- Generally solitary animals
- Do not hibernate like other bears
- Young pandas are under threat of predation by leopards, martins, eagles, feral dogs
- Pandas living outside China are on loan from the Chinese government
- China considers Pandas as national treasures
The Panda is still considered vulnerable. There are an estimated just over 2,000 Pandas currently with the population increasing. China has taken a direct role in preserving this species. The Chinese government, in partnership with WWF, has also developed bamboo corridors to link pockets of forest, allowing the pandas within them to move to new areas, find more food and meet more potential breeding mates.
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