melanoleuca) date back two to three million
Chinese emperors kept pandas because they were believed to
ward off evil spirits as well as natural disasters.
There is an ancient Chinese story about how giant
pandas got their unique markings. A young girl who was a
friend of these bears died and the pandas were struck with
sorrow. They wept at her funeral and rubbed their eyes with
their arms. The dark color from their armbands was wiped
onto their eyes. The bears then hugged themselves and marked
their ears, shoulders, hind legs and rumps, resulting in the
pattern seen today.
Today pandas are found only in a relatively
small area in Asia on mountainous slopes in Western China
and limited to the provinces of Sichuan, Gansu, and Shanxi
in the central part of the country. They exist on a diet
largely comprised of bamboo shoots. Their diet is extremely
limited and found only in a specific habitat. In fact, their
individual habitat range is only about one square mile.
Giant pandas can spend 10-12 hours a day feeding in order to
consume enough food to survive. They are well known for
their upright feeding position, which leaves their forelegs
free to handle the bamboo stalks. The panda has adapted
several special characteristics related to eating bamboo. It
has an extra digit on its hand that helps in tearing the
bamboo. This adaptation also allows increased dexterity
while handling bamboo. The stomach walls are extremely
muscular to help digest the woody diet; and the gut is
covered with a thick layer of mucus to protect against
The Giant Panda population is closely tied
to bamboo abundance and vice versa because pandas help to
distribute the bamboo seeds. However, as panda numbers
dwindle so does the bamboo, making it harder for them to
find food. As the bamboo dies out, the panda population
falls. There are very few Pandas left in the wild, only
between 600 - 1000. Combined with high infant mortality,
their survival is seriously threatened and they are
considered an endangered species.
Because of their limited number, there are very few pandas in
zoos. In 1972, the Chinese government gave a male named
Hsing-Hsing and female called Ling-Ling to the United States
as a gesture of friendship. The pandas went to the
Washington zoo where they mated successfully.
Ling-Ling gave birth to three sets of twins during
the 1980's, but unfortunately, all of the cubs died shortly
after birth. The successful reproductive rates of Pandas are
very low because the breeding period lasts only 24 - 48
hours. Efforts are underway by both the Chinese and
Americans to develop successful artificial insemination
programs of captive pandas in order to increase their
numbers. Hope for the pandas' long-term survival depends on
the success of these programs.
adult Giant Panda can grow up to 3 ½
feet tall and weigh up to 350 pounds. In the wild,
female pandas typically give birth once a year to two cubs.
The newborns weigh about 5 ounces and are completely white
and blind at birth. Unlike most bears at birth, giant panda
cubs are covered with a thin layer of fur. When the cub is
about a month old, the black areas begin to develop. Infant
pandas open their eyes at 3 weeks, but cannot move around on
their own for three to four months. A cub begins to eat
bamboo at about six months and is fully weaned from its
mother by about nine months. Normally they stay with their
mothers until they are about 1 ½ years old. By the end of
the first year, the young pandas weigh 70 to 80 pounds. A
panda reaches maturity in five to seven years and can live
in the wild up to 25 years. Except for the breeding season,
which is between March and May, pandas are solitary
creatures. Unlike bears, Giant Pandas do not hibernate
during the winter months. They have much leaner diets and do
not build up the level of fat required for hibernation.
However, they will descend to lower elevations during the
winter. Giant pandas do not build permanent dens but take
shelter in trees and caves. They primarily remain on the
ground but they are good climbers and can swim.