Giant Panda

Order:  CarnivoraPanda_BTI

Family:  Ursidae

Genus:  Ailuropoda

Species:  Ailuropoda melanoleuca

Where Found

Southwestern China, along the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau in six small areas in Sichuan, Gansu, and Shaanzi provinces.

Other Names

Xiongmao (giant bear cat)

Appearance

The giant panda bear has a thick coat of white fur, with black patches around its eyes and ears and black fur on its legs.  Pandas have a large head, accompanied by a round body structure. Adaptations to the skull such as flatter and wider molars and premolars allow them to manipulate thick bamboo stalks. A unique feature to this bear species is a skin flap located on each hand resembling a thumb, used for grasping objects (Bies, 2002).

Size

Male pandas in the wild weigh 190-275 pounds (86-125 kg). Female pandas weigh 155-220 pounds (70-91 kg).  In the wild, pandas live 14-20 years, on average. In captivity, pandas can live up to 30 years (World Wildlife Fund For Nature, 2017b).

Reproduction

Panda bears breed during March to May, giving birth to young every two to three years (Chorn & Hoffman, 1978). Sexual maturity of both males and females is reached at about six years of age (Bies, 2002). Estrous lasts for approximately 10 days. The gestation period in the wild is approximately five months, with females giving birth to one, two, or sometimes three young in September (Chorn & Hoffman, 1978). The quality of the den plays an important role in the survival of the offspring. Dens are typically built with small openings to keep the interior warm and dry for young (Swaisgood et al., 2016). Newborns are covered in white fur for the first two weeks, and weigh between 90-101 g. For the first few months, cubs rely on their mother’s milk as their main food source and are fully weaned by eight to nine months. After about 18 months, cubs disperse and live independently in the wild (World Wildlife Fund For Nature, 2017b).

Behavior

Adult panda bears are solitary, except during the breeding season. Compared to other bear species, their home ranges are relatively small, most only about 2.5 km2 (Chorn & Hoffman, 1978). Overlap between home ranges is very common, but interaction amongst individuals is rare (Swaisgood et al., 2016). Unlike other bear species, panda bears do not den up over long periods, but will relocate to lower elevations during the cooler months and occupy temporary dens in hollow trees and other crevices (Chorn & Hoffman, 1978). Observations of wild pandas show that they are highly crepuscular (Swaisgood et al., 2016). Chemosignals play a vital role in communication between individuals. Since interactions using direct contact are rare, scent markings are commonly used to attract mates or to mark their territory (Chorn & Hoffman, 1978).

Food

Giant panda bears are primarily herbivorous; feeding on a diet mainly composed of bamboo. Low in protein and high in lignin and cellulose, bamboo plants are difficult to digest. Because a relatively large part of the bamboo consumed by panda bears is digestible dry matter, pandas must consume large volumes of bamboo every day to meet their daily energy requirements. In order to digest this highly fibrous food source, some studies have shown that the panda bear gut contains microbacteria well suited for digestion and absorption of cellulose (Zhu et al., 2011, Nelson et. al., 2013). Pandas feed on the most nutritious parts of the plant and alternate between different species of bamboo, depending on the season. They prefer new bamboo shoots that maximize nutritional value and minimize indigestible fibers. During the late spring, they prefer leaves (Swaisgood et al., 2016).

Habitat

Giant panda bears are unique to China and continue to experience shifts in home ranges due to habitat fragmentation and availability of resources. Panda populations once occupied a wide range throughout southern China, reaching as far north into Beijing and as far south into Southeast Asia (IUCN, 2017). Today, populations inhabit a much smaller range and are only present in a few provinces (Sichuan, Shaanxi and Gansu; Swaisgood et. al., 2016). Pandas are usually found in temperate montane forests, filled with vegetation and large volumes of food resources. It is also believed that they prefer to inhabit old growth forests (Swaisgood et al., 2016).

Wild Population

There are less than 2,000 pandas in the wild.

Conservation

Currently, The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the giant panda bear as Vulnerable to extinction.  This species was downlisted from Endangered to Vulnerable in September, 2016.  With less than 2000 individuals in the wild, conservation efforts continue. Laws against poaching and strategies to protect habitat have played crucial roles in protecting pandas.  The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) was the first international conservation organization to collaborate with the government of China to assist in decision-making and conservation actions to help protect the giant panda bear. To date, the WWF has successfully helped to protect more than 3.8 million acres of forest habitat (World Wildlife Fund For Nature, 2017a). Emerging in popularity, the panda bear has become a focus in the conservation world. Collaboration amongst governments, NGOs and zoos have allowed for scientific knowledge to greatly improve over the years. This valuable information is much needed to improve conservation and management of this species into the future (Swaisgood et al., 2016).

Information on this page compiled by Stephanie Chan, photo courtesy of Shutterstock

References Cited

Bies, L. (2002). Ailuropoda melanoleuca. Animal Diversity Web. Retrieved from http://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Ailuropoda_melanoleuca/

Chorn, J., & Hoffman, R. S. (1978). Mammalian Species Ailuropoda melanoleuca. American Society of Mammalogists, (110): 1-6.

IUCN, International Union for the Conservation of Nature (2017)  http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/712/0

Nelson, T. M., Rogers, T. L. & Brown, M.V. (2013). The Gut Bacterial Community of Mammals from Marine and Terrestrial Habitats. PLoS ONE, 8(12): e83655.

Swaisgood, R., Wang, D. & Wei, F. (2016). Ailuropoda melanoleuca. (errata version published in 2016) The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2016: e.T712A102080907. Retrieved from http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/712/0

World Wildlife Fund For Nature. (2017a). Panda Bear. Retrieved from https://www.worldwildlife.org/species/giant-panda

World Wildlife Fund For Nature. (2017b). Life cycle. Retrieved from http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/endangered_species/giant_panda/panda/panda_life_cycle/

Zhu, L.F., Wu, Q., Dai, J.Y., Zhang, S.N., & Wei, F.W. (2011). Evidence of cellulose metabolism by the giant panda gut microbiome. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 108(43):17714-9.

Project Initiatives

Bear Trust focuses on 4 primary project initiatives: 1) Conservation Education 2) Bear Research & Management 3) Habitat Conservation 4) Conservation Policy

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