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Giant Panda Facts and History

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Home to dense bamboo forests among misty and rainy mountains in southwestern China, Giant Pandas are one of the oldest mammals. One fossil discovery of the panda carbon dated over eight million years ago. Still, sadly, their population has dwindled, with less than two thousand of them now in the wild.

Giant pandas are loved around the world and are not only fixtures of animal stores and used to inspire toys and games but are symbols of diplomacy and are used as the logo of the World Wildlife Fund that strives to protect this endangered species, which happens to be the rarest member of the bear family.

In China, where Giant Pandas once freely roamed, pandas are known as ‘da xiongmao’, which means ‘big bear cats’ with their scientific name, ‘Ailuropoda melaleuca, meaning ‘black and white car-footed bear,’ they were once thought to be part of the red panda and raccoon family (since each eats bamboo) but genetic, modern-day tests proved otherwise and showed that they indeed belong to the bear family.

In this guide, we cover the history of the Panda, their current state of vulnerability in the wild, and the organizations you can contribute to that help protect Panda bears from extinction.

Introduction to Giant Pandas

Giant pandas are native to central China and, in recent times, have become symbols of vulnerable species as there are as little as eighteen hundred in the wild, with around six hundred at zoos or breeding centers in cities around the world; one is the Smithsonian National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute.

The history of pandas goes back fifteen to twenty-five million years ago, when they first diverged from the bear line; they are referred to as ‘living fossils’ and ‘sacred creatures of the forest’ and are the only mammal to survive the Pleistocene that took place three million years ago when mammoths and saber-toothed tigers still roamed the earth.

Deemed symbols of strength and bravery, Chinese emperors used pandas to fend off evil spirits, bad omens, and natural disasters; the Chinese adored the gentle giant, and since the giant panda was a sign of peace, they were given as valued and treasured gifts to royalty and politicians of other countries as gestures of peace and goodwill, a practice and customary tradition that still takes place to this very day.

Giant Panda Physical Traits

Giant Panda Facts

Giant pandas are black-and-white bears that not only have black eye patches but are black on the legs, eyes, muzzle, and shoulders, with the rest of the body covered in white. While scientists are unsure why they are these colors, most say their bold colors give them camouflage in dense patches of bamboo or on snow-rocky mountain slopes, as an immobile, stationary panda in the snow is not easy for one to see.

Some disagree with this, though, as giant pandas have no enemies in the wild to fend from. Still, a second thought is their coats may be used as a social signal or means of communication as they tend to be a solitary species, and their patterns may help them identify a panda they want to avoid from a distance.

Another popular theory is that their black patches absorb heat while their white fur reflects it, making it easier for the Giant Panda to stay calm and regulate body heat.  Aside from these few theories, there is not one that is proven or conclusive; maybe over time, scientists will narrow down the reason.

Giant pandas lived in bamboo forests for millions of years. They were highly specialized animals with unique and valuable adaptations as their thick-wooly coats kept them warm in cool forests while their strong jaw muscles and large molar teeth made crushing tough bamboo a breeze for their strength.

Size and Weight of Giant Pandas

Giant pandas are roughly the size of an American black bear, with a height of two to three feet (sixty to ninety centimeters) at their shoulder (when on all four legs) and tend to be four to six feet in length.

Males outweigh females at an average of two hundred and fifty pounds (one hundred and thirteen kilograms), with females averaging two hundred and twenty pounds (one hundred and four kilograms).

Giant Panda Native Habitat

Giant pandas reside in mountain ranges across south central China and are found in the Gansu, Sichuan, and Shaanxi provinces.  At one point, they lived in lowland areas but sadly, farming, deforestation, and other land projects drove them out and restricted them to the mountains, where they reside today.

These endangered pandas reside in broadleaf, coniferous forests that are lush and dense in bamboo; this is at a five to ten-thousand-foot elevation where dense mist, thick-heavy clouds, and torrential rain are expected all year long, making forests in the area an ideal habitat for these bamboo-dwelling pandas.

Giant Panda Communication

Giant pandas exhibit no body language that conveys visual signals. They have round, non-expressive faces, and their stub tails do not let them flag signals to other pandas or wildlife; they also lack a crest and mane and have ears that are not flexible enough to flatten or move forward.

Scientists say they lack these abilities due to their habitat and isolated nature as they live in dense, fog-struck regions of bamboo, making a line of sight and visual communications impossible. However, they are pretty vocal when mating and express unique vocalizations reflecting their mood and feelings.

Giant pandas most easily communicate by scent-marking their habitat and territory, which they do by spreading secretions from their anus on rocks, trunks,  and other areas on the ground; they do this as a way to mark their territory and tend to do so along paths or trails where people or wildlife often trek.

Scent-marking alerts pandas in the vicinity that others are in the area; the scent may separate them or make them come together, depending on the season and the panda that picks up and smells the scent.

During the breeding season, the scent of a female marks the readiness that will attract a male to her. Still, during the outside breeding season, unfamiliar scents often compel intruding pandas to retreat from the vicinity.

Giant Panda Eating Habits

Millions around the world watch pandas eat at the zoo each year. As they consume bamboo, pandas do so in an upright posture similar to how a person sits on the floor as it lets them use their front paws to grasp bamboo stems, but with the help of their pseudo thumb that’s formed by their large wrist bone that is covered by a fleshy pad.

Giant panda’s digestive systems are similar to carnivores; much of what they eat is passed on as waste. Still, to make up for digestive inefficiencies, they eat seventy to a hundred pounds of bamboo each day to get the nutrients they need to survive, which means they search for food for ten to sixteen hours each day.

Giant Panda Social Traits

Giant pandas are solitary yet communicate via calls, scent marks, and meetings; research also shows they sometimes form groups of seven to fifteen pandas within their local region and population to mate or mingle.

Pandas in groups occupy a territory in which home ranges of males nearly overlap entirely while ranges home to females overlap far less; members of other ‘groups’ tend to socialize less, with offspring staying with the mother for a year and a half to three years, at which point the panda is fit for self-survival.

Giant Panda Reproduction and Development

Giant pandas achieve breeding maturity at four to eight years old and can reproduce well into their twenties; females ovulate once per year in the spring, at which point they have a two to three-day period in which they can conceive so they must use calls and scents to attract a male to them.

Born pink, blind, and hairless, cubs are helpless and take a significant toll on the mother who must feed and protect it; these cubs are tiny at birth with a three to five-ounce weight and a size that is roughly one nine-hundredth that of its mother; a stick of butter is about the size of a giant panda at its time of birth.

Giant panda females give birth in ninety to a hundred and eighty days after mating, and while they may birth two cubs, only one tends to survive the birth; ones that make it stay with the mom for up to three years; this means females can birth young every other year and can have five to eight cubs in its lifetime.

Genetically, giant pandas have slow breeding rates, making it hard for their population to recover from habitat loss and illegal hunting, not to mention deforestation and industrialization, which largely and negatively impact the giant panda population.

Giant Panda Sleeping Cycle and Habits

In Mother Nature, giant pandas sleep two to four hours between feedings and like to nap on their side or back, as well as on their belly or sprawled or curled up in ball-like form.

As giant pandas rest, they steadily defecate their diet, so how much is found on the ground is a good indicator of how long the panda spent at that location. 

During a short nap of two hours or less, five to ten droppings can be found, with eleven to twenty-five signaling the giant panda stayed for the night.

Giant Panda Lifespan

The lifespan of giant pandas in the wild is unknown, but we know they are shorter than those in zoos; scientists say those in the wild live fifteen to twenty years, while those in human care can live for up to thirty years.

Scientists once reported a giant panda in China that was thirty-five years of age, with the oldest one in the states being twenty-eight years old; his name was Hsing-Hsing, and he passed at The Smithsonian National Zoo in 1999.

Giant Panda Conservation

Giant pandas are among the most respected animals around the world. They are universally recognized as peaceful, charismatic symbols of China and conservation organizations. However, global interest in rescuing the endangered species did not begin to take off until a few decades ago, a long over-due commitment.

Over time, conservation efforts helped panda populations recover. Still, they remain at risk as people, and the land developments they erect, threaten their habitat and ability to thrive. At the same time, panda nature reserves exist, and nearly a third of all wild pandas are in small, isolated populations outside protected areas.

Nine Facts on the Giant Panda

  1. Giant pandas spend most of their days eating, with ten to sixteen hours per day spent feeding.
  2. Giant pandas have an extended wrist that they use as an extra thumb to grip food and bamboo.
  3. Giant pandas can swim and climb trees easily and begin to learn each at five months old.
  4. Giant pandas have eyes that differ from average bears and are similar to cats as they have vertical slits as pupils.
  5. Giant pandas may climb a tree backward using their hind feet and then hang upside down in handstand positions to mark and leave their scent.
  6. Giant pandas rely on bamboo as it is vital to their diet, which is why they need at least two unique bamboo species in their vicinity to prevent starvation.
  7. Giant panda cubs are well protected by their mother during the first month and are with their mom at all times during this period; you will find these cubs resting on the front of the mom, which will have her cub covered by her arm, paw, or head.
  8. Pandas have excellent camouflage for their habitat as their black-and-white coat not only acts as camouflage but serves as a way to communicate; their neck, face, belly, and rear are white to stay hidden in snow, while their legs and arms are black to help stay out of sight in the night or shade.
  9. Giant panda diets are ninety-nine percent vegan and contain bamboo stems, leaves, roots, and shoots, but their digestive system is that of a carnivore, so the rest of their diet may be eggs, carrion, and small animals; pandas also like venturing on farmlands for wheat, pumpkin, kidney beans, and even pig food.

The giant panda is a fascinating animal with a history and personality that is just as unique as them; we hope you enjoyed this guide on giant panda facts and our review on the history of the giant panda; we have tons of great write-ups here at GiantPandaBear.com so feel free to read around for more articles and information on the giant panda.

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