Giant Panda

Beyond Black and White

The giant panda, also known as the panda, is one of the rarest mammals on Earth. It lives high in the dense bamboo forests of the misty and rainy mountains in southwestern China. In the wild, there are only about 1,900 of these black-and-white bears left.

The giant panda at the Ocean Park Hong Kong

The giant panda at the Ocean Park Hong Kong

Pandas primarily eat bamboo shoots and leaves, which make up 99% of their diets. Though they occasionally eat other plants, fish, or small animals, bamboo is their main food source. Fossilized dental remains show that the giant panda committed to bamboo as its primary food source at least three million years ago.

Despite having forepaws, teeth, and jaws adapted for bamboo consumption, pandas still have the digestive system of their carnivore ancestors. This means they can’t digest cellulose, a major component of bamboo. Due to this, pandas need to eat a lot, around 70 to 100 pounds (30 to 50 kilograms) of bamboo each day, to get all their nutrients. To find enough food, pandas spend about 10 to 16 hours a day foraging and eating. The rest of their time is mostly spent sleeping and resting.

Giant panda eating bamboo shoots

Giant panda eating bamboo shoots

The panda has a unique way of eating—it sits upright, similar to how humans sit on the floor. This posture allows the front paws to be free, and they use a “pseudo thumb” made from an elongated wrist bone to grasp bamboo stems. With its powerful jaws and strong teeth, the panda then crushes the tough bamboo into smaller pieces.

While adult giant pandas are typically solitary, they still communicate using scent marks, calls, and occasional encounters. Recent research shows that they can form communities of 7 to 15 individuals within the local population. Interestingly, members from different groups usually avoid socializing with each other.

25 days of giant panda cubs

25 days of giant panda cubs

The giant pandas’ slow breeding rate is a natural characteristic that makes it challenging for their population to rebound swiftly from threats like illegal hunting and habitat loss. Female pandas experience ovulation just once a year, in the fall. During this time, which lasts for only two to three days, they have the opportunity to conceive.

At birth, a giant panda cub is entirely helpless, and the mother puts in significant effort to raise it. The newborn cub weighs only 3-5 ounces (90-140 grams), similar in size to a bar of soap. It’s pink, hairless, and blind, and its size is just 1/800th that of its mother. In the first weeks of life, they are unable to regulate their body temperatures or even defecate on their own.

Around six weeks after birth, the cub’s eyes begin to open, and at 12 weeks, it takes its first wobbly steps. Since the cub is so vulnerable, it is born in a den, where it stays for the first four months of life. By about 14 months, when its milk teeth have come in, the cub starts eating bamboo. Finally, at 18-24 months old, the cub is weaned from its mother.

In the wild, when pandas give birth to twins, they often find it demanding to care for both cubs, leading them to abandon one of them. However, in captivity, scientists intervene to care for the neglected cub and may even try swapping the cubs to make sure both receive their mother’s attention and milk.

Panda doesn’t realize she’s had twins

Panda doesn’t realize she’s had twins

Scientists are uncertain about the exact lifespan of giant pandas in the wild, but they believe it is shorter than the lifespans of pandas in zoos. They estimate that wild pandas live around 15-20 years, while those in human care can live up to about 30 years.

Fossils found in northern Myanmar, Vietnam, and much of China show that giant pandas were widespread throughout eastern Asia, around 2.6 million to 11,700 years ago. However, human activities such as forest destruction and poaching have limited their habitat to remote mountain fragments on the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau.

China has taken significant steps since the 1990s to conserve the giant pandas, considering them a national treasure. The number of reserves has grown from 14 to over 40. As a result of China’s efforts in restoring bamboo forest habitat, the IUCN changed the status of the panda from “endangered” to “vulnerable” in 2016.

Words of wisdom

“The price good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men.” —Plato

“Just improve yourself; that is the only thing you can do to better the world.” —Ludwig Wittgenstein

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” —Socrates

“I would never die for my beliefs because I might be wrong.” —Bertrand Russell

Bibliography

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