Giant Pandas are a part of Ursidae family, which means they’re a kind of bear and are most closely related genetically to other bears.
The scientific name for Giant Pandas is Ailuropoda melanoleuca
There are fossils for four other kinds of Giant Pandas from the Ailuropoda genus, dating back to prehistoric times, but the Ailuropoda melanoleuca is the only one still alive today.
The oldest Pandas are thought to live for about 35 years, though this has only been observed in captivity.
Scientists aren’t sure how long Pandas live in the wild, but its assumed life spans will be naturally shorter there.
Giant Pandas live in the mountains in China, mainly in three provinces; Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu.
The forests a Panda calls home would look a bit strange to most of us, they’re characterised by very heavy rain and dense mist year round, and this is partly due to them generally being around 5 to 10 thousand feet above sea level.
There’s plenty of greenery, generally broadleaf and coniferous forests, with a healthy dose of the Pandas staple food – bamboo.
Size and Weight
In terms of size, a Panda is generally 2 – 3 feet tall when on all four legs and around four to six feet long. Surprisingly this means that even the tallest Pandas when stood on two legs might look short next to the tallest humans.
Pandas can weigh anywhere from 140 pounds to 250 pounds with males typically being a fair bit heavier than females.
In the wild Pandas eat a diet that is almost entirely bamboo, they have powerful jaws and extra strong molars to help them deal with the tough plant (and believe us when we say it’s not soft! Imagine eating cardboard wrapped in wood).
In captivity, Pandas are treated to some extras, namely sugar cane, gruel, carrots, apples and sweet potatoes.
Pandas are a fascinating example of highly focused evolution. This species of bears is believed to have lived in bamboo forests for millions of years and have adapted in many ways to survive in their specific environment. Despite these changes, bamboo remains an incredibly inefficient energy source and Pandas have to consume 20 – 40 pounds of the stuff each day to survive. This means a typical Panda’s day in the wild features 10 – 16 hours of eating.
A Giant Panda can eat an entire bamboo shoot in under a minute.
A single Giant Panda can require up to 4 square miles of grazing land to survive in the wild. For reference, here’s four square miles in New York City and London.
Pandas reach breeding maturity between the ages of four and eight and can continue to produce young up until roughly age twenty.
Female pandas only ovulate for a few days each year and are pregnant for between 95 and 160 days.
It’s rare for a female panda to have more than six or seven cubs in her lifetime. This naturally low reproductive rate is the main reason Panda population has struggled so much in the face of illegal poaching and environmental change.
When born a Panda cub only weighs three to five ounces, considerably smaller than other new-born mammals and almost 0.1% the size of their mother.
Cubs are born hairless and blind and don’t actually open their eyes until they are at least six weeks old, only learning to move independently after the first three months.
Adult Giant Pandas tend to be solitary creatures, though they have successfully cohabited in captivity with few problems.
Baby Pandas will stay with their mothers for between 1 and a half and 3 years, before they’re grown enough to fend for themselves.
Living in Danger
Giant Pandas are officially listed as vulnerable in the World Conservation Union’s Red List of Threatened Species. There are just 1600 believed to be left in the wild. To put this in perspective there around 200,000 brown bears in the world and there are believed to be over a million cats and dogs in New York City alone.
Thankfully there are 300 or so Pandas protected and living in zoos and this population is growing.
Pandas are still under constant threat of poaching; their fur is worth up to $100,000 on the black market.
It’s incredibly expensive to look after a Panda in captivity; in fact it’s five times more expensive than the second most expensive animal, the elephant.
Giant Pandas do not hibernate, which sets them apart from other members of the bear family. Though they do move to lower altitudes during the winter to help keep warm and stick to higher ranges in the summer to keep cool.
Pandas can be active at any time during the day or night.
Although Pandas are believed to have lived on the earth for 2 – 3 million years, for much of that time they’ve been shrouded in mystery, with the first paintings and artistic impressions of Pandas only appearing for the first time in the 20th Century.