They Haven’t Always Been Classified as Bears, and Other Interesting Facts About the Panda

The giant panda, an iconic species known for its distinctive black eye markings and love of bamboo, was once more widespread than it currently is. Fossils indicate that it once lived in Myanmar, Vietnam, and throughout much of China. Due to human encroachment on its habitat, it’s now found only in the mountains of southwest China, in the Sichuan, Shaanxi, and Gansu provinces. and its numbers in the wild are only around 1,800. There are an additional 600 in captivity.

Read on to learn more about what makes this species so unique, and what we can do to save it.

They Haven’t Always Been Considered a Bear

While giant pandas are currently classified as members of the bear family, or Ursidae, there has been discussion in the past over whether they should be in the raccoon family, or Procyonidae. That once happened with the red panda, as well, which is now classified as its own independent family: Ailuridae.

Giant panda looks at camera

Giant pandas do share similarities with other bears, including their body characteristics, movement, and reproductive biology.

They’re Also a Cat?

Beloved in their native China, where they’re the national animal, the panda’s name at home includes yet another animal. This time, it’s not a raccoon. In China, their name translates to large bear cat. A cat? No wonder they’re so endearing.

They Eat a Lot of Bamboo

While giant pandas may snack on the occasional rodent, carrion, or insect, they’re primarily plant-eaters. Their plant of choice? Bamboo, which accounts for the vast majority of their diet. The animals will spend at least 12 hours a day chowing down on it, eating up to 85 pounds in the process. Their digestive systems are built more for a carnivorous diet, however, so they don’t process the bamboo all that well. This means they need to eat a substantial amount to get sufficient nutrients.

Giant panda eating

They’re Marathon Poopers

Because the bamboo giant pandas eat passes through their digestive systems so quickly, the animals are known to poo up to 50 times per day. In fact, they defecate so much that they even do so while sleeping and eating. The poo is helpful for scientists, though, who can use droppings to find out where the pandas are. They can also calculate how long the animals stayed in a specific spot based on how much poo there is.

They Love a Good Snooze

When they’re not eating, giant pandas are almost always resting or sleeping. The naps will break up these marathon feeding sessions. Once they wake up, it’s back to that bamboo… to produce more poo.

They’re Vocal

Giant panda with food in its mouth

While pandas do much of their communication via scent, they’re also “chatty”. Scientists have identified about a dozen vocalizations the animals make. Those include bleating, squealing, chirping, honking, and barking. These sounds can indicate distress, aggression, readiness to mate, or merely a desire to greet.

They’re a Friend to Plants

As giant pandas move around, they help plants proliferate through seed dispersal. This is from both seeds getting on their fur and from seeds in their prodigious poos. The protection of pandas also makes them an umbrella species, as conserving their habitat helps the other plant and animal life within it.

They’re Incredibly Tiny When They’re Born

Newborn giant pandas are roughly 1/900 the size of their mothers, weighing just 3 to 5 ounces at birth. This is compared with the roughly 200-pound frame they’ll grow into should they survive into adulthood. In addition to being so tiny, they’re also nearly bald, blind, and completely defenseless for some time. To care for this little cub, the mother can go up to a whole month without eating or drinking, devoting all her focus to care instead.

Closeup of giant panda face

Many Panda Births Are Twins, But It’s Rare for Both to Survive

Due to the immense care involved in cub upbringing, it may not be surprising that they don’t all survive. Twin births are very common for giant pandas, but the mother will typically care for only one of them out of necessity, so the other won’t survive. In captivity, this leads many care teams to switch the two babies out regularly so the mother thinks she’s only caring for one. The one not currently in her care is looked after by staff.

They Face Threats

In addition to the high death rate of half the twins born to giant pandas, they also reproduce slowly due to how long cubs remain with their mothers. Female pandas are only fertile for about three days a year, as well. This makes other threats facing them more pronounced, as populations rebound slowly. Habitat loss and fragmentation due to farming and logging, climate change impacting their bamboo habitat, decreasing bamboo access due to forest loss, and poaching present serious ongoing risks to the species’ survival. This has them currently listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.

We’re working with partners to help ensure the giant panda’s survival, though, by caring for cubs. If you’d like to help, click below!

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