Bare Facts of Giant Panda
1) Though it will grow to be a giant – if it lives (in nature, almost one-half of infant pandas do not survive, for a number of reasons, including the threat from predators such as eagles, wild dogs and snow leopards, and, of course, from a lack of proper nutrition that is ultimately owing to the loss of habitat caused by human encroachment, though about 90% of panda infants in captivity survive) – the infant panda is born a midget at only 15-17 centimeters (6-7 inches) in length and weighing, on average, 150 grams (5 ¼ ounces). It will not open its eyes for 6-8 weeks, and is born with a long tail that quickly shrinks to a more normal size as it grows (the adult panda has the second-largest tail among bears, measuring between 10-15 centimeters (4-6 inches).
2) The infant panda is weak and cannot move about on its own power the first 3-4 months, but thereafter, it quickly becomes active, and by the time it reaches 6 months, it is an eager climber, even if it still has a lot to learn about climbing.
3) The Giant Panda comes in two color-combination variants/ subspecies, depending on native habitat: black and white (the most typical panda, Ailuropoda melanoleuca melanoleuca, and native to Sichuan Province, especially the Minshan Mountain area); and dark-brown and light-brown (Ailuropoda melanoleuca qinlingensis, who is native to, as the name suggests, the Qingling Mountain area of Shaanxi Province).
4) The dark-brown and light-brown panda has a slightly smaller head, but in spite of this has larger molars, though both subspecies have very large molar teeth – and very powerful jaw muscles – necessary for crushing and chewing the bamboo on which they live almost exclusively (bamboo makes up about 99% of the diet of a Giant Panda living in the wild, the rest is made up of grasses, wild tubers and the chance "windfall" of rodents and other small mammals such as the pika (genus Ochotona of the family Ochotonidae, to which the rabbit and the hare belong) – though pandas will sometimes search out and eat meat in the same, nature-determined way that the family dog sometimes gets the urge to eat certain grasses – and they similarly also eat any "windfall" of chicks that fall out of a nest, and they will even eat a "windfall" of carrion).
5) The panda appears to have an opposed (to the fingers) thumb, a bit like humans, but in fact, the panda's "thumb" is simply a modified wrist bone that helps the panda anchor the bamboo plant while eating, and thus it serves a grabbing-gripping function similar to the opposed thumb in humans. This evolutionary adaptation is only one of several peculiar features that are owing to the fact that the panda, while it has the digestive system of a carnivore, it has developed a "palate" – or taste – almost exclusively for the low-calorie bamboo plant, an adaptation that has both physical and behavioral ramifications. These are as follows.
A) The panda has a large (over-sized!), roundish head, which is owing to the special jaw muscles that are required to gnaw and chew the bamboo plant, and which muscles describe an arc on either side of the panda's face, beginning at the top of the head and running down to the jaw.
B) The panda, somewhat similar to the gorilla (also largely a vegetarian), has a short, squat body (it exhibits the property of low body surface to body volume) that is a direct result of the lowered rate of metabolism associated with its bamboo diet, and which has a number of behavioral components and consequences, namely:
B1) The panda leads a very sedentary life since its low-calorie diet precludes adrenalin-charged, ferocious power surges typical of other bears (or other high-calorie-intake meat-eaters, for that matter, such as us humans), which leads to the following corrollaries:
B1a) The panda has evolved into a peaceful – even cuddly (to humans) – animal, though when threatened, it will grab its victim and bite bone-crushingly hard, so one should always remember not to "get in the face of" (stress) a Giant Panda!
B1b) The panda evolved into a solitary creature, since, on the down side (there are many up sides of course!) social interaction inevitably leads to stressful and conflictful situations, and the panda's bamboo-based metabolism simply cannot tolerate too much stress and/or physical exertion (think: fighting, or even rough-and-tumble wrestling), though pandas in captivity, especially cohort cubs, exhibit a greater willingness for social interaction... in the wild, a cub would simply not have the opportunity to play with a cohort cub, since mother pandas, though not outright territorial, will not tolerate other females or even juvenile males in her "territory" (for all practical purposes, the mother panda is territorial, since she leaves scent marks as a warning to others to stay away, though after the cub has grown to a certain age, she again comes into a state of estrus (i.e., is willing to mate) and her scent, though it may warn off other females and juvenile males, has quite the opposite effect on sexually active males).
B2) Since the panda must eat prodigious amounts of bamboo daily (it eats between 12-38 kilograms of bamboo a day!) to make up for the bamboo plant's poor nutritional value, it spends an inordinately large proportion of its day eating, and this might well explain why (my armchair theory here!) panda mothers – in the wild at least (but it also happens in captivity) – often cannot foster more than one infant at a time, leaving the other, where two are born, to die, which also goes some way to explaining the rather poor rate of reproduction of the panda. The high-intake, low-nutritional bamboo diet of the panda leads to the following corrollary:
B2a) Because the carnivorous (actually, omniverous, but other bears eat mainly meat) panda's stomach is not properly geared to digesting plant matter, it can only digest about 20% of what it ingests (a cow, by comparison, with her series of stomachs for recycling grass repeatedly, until it is broken down completely, can extract about 80% of what it ingests as nutrition), spends an inordinately large amount of time each day pooping (when you add up the eating/foraging, the sleeping and the pooping, there is little time left for artistic self-expression!).
B3) Since the panda subsists on a high-intake, low-calorie diet, there is no way (another of my armchair theories, but also quite intuitive!) that it can store up enough fat to permit it to hibernate, therefore if the temperature begins to fall drastically in its favorite autumn hangout, it just relocates farther down the mountain where the temperature is more moderate; for certain, this animal could not survive the long winter of hibernation that its meat-eating cousins endure!
6) Both Giant Panda subspecies have the general body shape – less the over-sized, round head – that is characteristic of a bear.
7) An adult panda measures between 1.2 – 1.8 meters (1.3 – 2.0 yards) in length, from head to tail, whenon all fours, but "stands" at a maximum height of 90 centimeters (1 yard) from the soles of its feet to its shoulders (note that the panda does raise itself up on two legs, unlike many other bear species, even if only briefly). Though males and females fall in the same body-length range, males are stockier and denser and therefore weigh more – up to 15% more, roughly. An adult male panda in good health (meaning, with access to sufficient food) typically weighs 150 kilograms (330 lbs) – or 1000 times its weight at birth, since it is born at a mere 150 grams! – while the corresponding female typically weighs slightly under 125 kilograms (275 lbs).
8) The Giant Panda has very poor long-distance eyesight, relying instead on an excellent sense of hearing and smell, plus it has a first-rate built-in compass, as it were (updated to modern parlance, one might instead say that the Giant Panda is equipped with GPS!), that helps it to orient itself geographically, which makes it considereably easier to find food and shelter, on which survival in the wild ultimately depends.
9) The Giant Panda has a life span of roughly 20 years in the wild, where life is naturally harsher, but lives typically up to 30 years in captivity, where it is a bit spoiled, one might reasonably say, since the infant panda born in captivity 'has everything going for it', both w.r.t. nutrition and "parental" care, where the care in question is sometimes provided by humans. The oldest Giant Panda in captivity, a female named Ming Ming, reached the ripe old age of 34 – one and a half times older than she could have hoped to live in the wild.
10) The Giant Panda became the official logo for the Worldwide Wildlife Fund (WWF) in 1979, and in the years leading up to this very important – not least, for the Giant Panda! – development, the government of the PRC came to recognize the significance of the Giant Panda as a national treasure. Indeed, the Giant Panda has become China's modern national symbol, even if the Dragon is its historical national symbol.