Genus and species: Ailuropoda melanoleuca
Giant pandas live in broadleaf and coniferous forests with dense understories of bamboo at elevations between 5,000 and 10,000 feet (roughly 1,500-3,000 meters). Torrential rain and dense mist are common in these forests, often shrouded in heavy clouds.
This black-and-white animal has a body typical of bears. Black fur covers its ears, eyes, muzzle, legs, and shoulders, while the rest of its coat is white. Scientists aren’t sure why giant pandas are black and white, but some speculate that the bold coloring acts like camouflage in their shade-dappled snowy and rocky surroundings.
The panda's thick, wooly coat keeps it warm in the cool damp forests of its habitat. They have large molar teeth and strong jaw muscles for crushing tough bamboo. Don’t be fooled by their cuteness – giant pandas can be as dangerous as any other bear.
About the size of an American black bear, giant pandas stand between two and three feet tall on all four legs, and reach four to six feet in length. In the wild, males are heavier than females, weighing up to 250 pounds. Females rarely reach 220 pounds.
Scientists aren't sure how long giant pandas live in the wild, but they know it's shorter than pandas’ life span in zoos. Chinese scientists have reported zoo pandas as old as 35 years. Field research has proven that pandas may live longer in captivity, but successful breeding is higher in the wild.
A wild giant panda’s diet is 99 percent bamboo, including on rare occasions, other grasses and animal carcasses. In zoos, giant pandas eat bamboo, sugar cane, rice gruel, a special high-fiber biscuit, carrots, apples, and sweet potatoes.
Adult giant pandas are generally solitary, but sometimes they communicate using scent marks, urine, calls, tree scratches, and occasional meetings. Offspring may stay with their mothers from one and a half to three years, usually until the mother conceives again. If she doesn’t conceive, the cub remains with its mother until it’s about two and half years old.
At around this age, its mother chases it away to fend for itself. Once on their own, most cubs tend to settle in the vicinity of their mothers. However, some giant pandas, especially females, will wander away from their birthplace and settle elsewhere. More research is needed to understand pandas’ behavior, distribution, and status.
A panda usually eats sitting upright, in a pose similar to how humans sit on the floor. This posture leaves the front paws free to grasp bamboo stems with the help of a "pseudo thumb," formed by an elongated and enlarged wrist bone covered with a fleshy pad of skin. The panda also uses its powerful jaws and strong teeth to crush the tough, fibrous bamboo into bits.
A giant panda’s digestive system is more like that of a carnivore than an herbivore, so it passes much of what it eats. To make up for inefficient digestion, pandas need to consume a large amount of food—from 20 to 40 pounds of bamboo each day— to get all their nutrients. This means that pandas spend 10 to 16 hours a day foraging and eating, and the rest of the day for sleeping and resting.
Bamboo, a grass whose contents are about half water, gives wild giant pandas most, but not all, of the water they need. They also drink fresh water from rivers and streams. The temperate forests where giant pandas live receive up to 40 inches of rain and snow annually. Charleston, West Virginia—a city with a similar climate—receives about the same amount: an average of 42.5 inches a year.
Giant pandas reach breeding maturity between four and eight years of age. They may be reproductive until about age 20. Female pandas ovulate only once a year, in the spring. She can only conceive during a short period of two to three days around ovulation. Calls and scents draw males and females to each other.
Female giant pandas give birth between 95 and 160 days after mating. Although females may give birth to two young, usually only one survives. Since cubs stay with their mothers for up to three years before striking out on their own, a wild female, at best, can only produce young every other year. In her lifetime, she may successfully raise only five to eight cubs. Giant pandas are naturally slow breeders, making it difficult for populations to recover quickly from illegal hunting, habitat loss, and other human-related causes of death.
At birth, a panda cub is helpless. It takes considerable effort on the mother’s part to raise it. A newborn weighs three to five ounces. Pink, hairless, and blind, the cub is 1/900th the size of its mother. Except for a marsupial (such as the kangaroo or opossum), panda babies are the smallest newborn mammals relative to their mother's size.
Cubs don’t open their eyes until they are six to eight weeks of age, and are immobile until three months. A cub may nurse for up to nine months before it can eat bamboo. A cub is nutritionally weaned at one year, but not socially weaned for up to two years. Infant mortality is lower in the wild than in captivity, estimated at around 40 percent.
A wild panda spends much of its day resting, feeding, and seeking food. Unlike other bears from temperate climates, giant pandas do not hibernate. Until recently, scientists thought giant pandas spent most of their lives alone, with males and females meeting only during the breeding season. However, recent studies show small groups of pandas sharing large territories, and sometimes meeting outside the breeding season. Much remains to be learned about the secret lives of these elusive animals, and every discovery helps scientists in their battle to save this species.
- November to March: searches for bamboo, struggles through five months of winter
- March to April: breeding season, male adults compete for female attention
- May to July: follows new bamboo growth, move to higher altitudes
- August to September: birthing season for baby pandas