Giant Panda

The giant panda is one of the world's rarest mammals

The giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) first appeared in the evolutionary record during the late Pliocene or early Pleistocene, some two to three million years ago. Panda fossils have been found in Burma, Vietnam, and particularly in eastern China, as far north as Beijing. Pandas were once widespread in southern and eastern China and in neighbouring Myanmar and north Vietnam. Today, however, there are only around 1,000 left. All of these are found in one geographic region - the bamboo forests of southwestern China.

Giant pandas are classed as bears by most scientists. Unlike other bears, they vocalize by bleating rather than roaring. Until recently, giant pandas were grouped with raccoons and lesser pandas (i.e., the Procyonidae (raccoon) family). This decision was based primarily on physiological evidence. In the late 1980's, DNA/serological studies clearly established that giant pandas are clearly more bear than raccoon. Some scientists want to place giant pandas in their own grouping; but for most bear researchers, this does not seem warranted.

The giant panda only exists at present in six small areas located in inland China. The habitat, suitable for the bamboo on which it survives, is a cold, damp coniferous forest. The elevation ranges from 1,200 to 3,400 metres ( 4,000 to 11,000 feet) high. In most of the areas in which they still roam wild, they must compete with farmers who farm the river valleys and the lower slopes of the mountains.

Adult pandas weigh 165-353 pounds. Their body length is 4-5 feet, with a 5 inch tail. Males are slightly larger than females. They have stronger forelegs, wider muzzles and are 10-20% heavier. Pandas have stout, powerful limbs. Their hind feet lack a heel pad.

Pandas have scent glands positioned under the tail. Their head is relatively massive with well developed chewing muscles. Unlike other bears, they have well-developed premolars.

Their molars are broad and flat and adapted to chewing bamboo. Their digestive system is typical of a carnivore; only slightly adapted for processing bamboo: tough esophageal lining, pyloric region of stomach thick and muscular, small intestine shortened, colon surface area enlarged.

Male genitalia is similar to red panda. Vision is poor. Their pupils have a vertical slit like many nocturnal animals. Sense of smell is very good.

A panda’s coat is thick and wooly. It is white with black eye patches, ears, legs, band across shoulders and sometimes tip of tail. Fur is slightly oily preventing water penetration. Their striking coloration is thought to be an important signal to other pandas ( They avoid contact and have poor vision). Brown-and-white pandas exist but are extremely rare. Black and white and bear?like, the panda roams in a well?defined home?range of between 3.9 and 12 km.

Much research on pandas has been conducted at the Wolong Nature Reserve in Sichuan. Studies here showed that the panda lived a solitary existence, meeting only occasionally with other pandas, except during the very brief mating season in late spring or early summer when several males come together and compete for a female. A female is on heat for two to three days. New research from Shaanxi Province’s Qinling Mountains now presents a different scenario. Far from living alone, it claims, pandas in Qinling live and travel in groups of at least two, and sometimes in groups of up to 28.

Da xiong mao, the Chinese name for the giant panda means “great bear cat”. Chinese books, written over 3,000 years ago, talk of the giant panda. Even then, it was believed to be endowed with mystical powers capable of warding off natural disasters and evil spirits. The scientific name for giant pandas, Ailuropoda melanoleuca, simply means black and white bear.

Unlike some other bears, the panda does not hibernate. Its cubs are fairly small at birth, weighing only 90 to 130 gm, but, fully grown, it can weigh 100kg and over. New?born cubs have little fur and are very delicate. Infant mortality is also high. The average life span is 18 to 20 years in the wild, and up to 30 years in captivity.

Wild giant pandas are found only in southwestern China. They occupy 6 small forest fragments in the provinces of Sichuan, Gansu and Shaanxi. (5,400 square miles).

They inhabit damp, misty forests of bamboo and conifers. Their preferred habitat has dense stands of at least one species of bamboo (preferably more).

They are found at high altitudes (4,000-11,500 feet). They migrate higher in the summer, lower in the winter, preferring areas that are undisturbed by human activity and with access to clear mountain streams.

Summers are cool with Monsoon (torrential rains) occurring from June to October. Snow and hail are common in winter.


China News Digest