Bear FAQs

Where do giant pandas get their characteristic black and white coloring from?

Actually, not all giant pandas are black and white; the main variant, living in the Minshan Mountains of Sichuan and Gansu Provinces – and the "poster child" of the WWF – is indeed black and white, but a second variant, living in the Qinling Mountains of Shaanxi Province, are light-brown and dark-brown in color (the Latin name for this dual coloring, melanoleuca, means "particolored", which accurately describes both variants, even if melanoleuca is often erroneously translated as "black and white").

So why is the giant panda particolored, you ask? There are two conflicting explanations, and I will offer them both below, leaving it to the reader to decide which sounds more plausible, but adding my own "two cents", for what they may be worth...

The first theory for the particolored panda is that this special pattern serves as a kind of camouflage, since it snows frequently – at least in winter – at the altitude at which the panda resides. Of course, if there is no snow on the ground – and in the trees – within the panda's habitat year round, then this argument falls apart, for the very attribute that protects the panda when snow is present exposes the panda when it isn't!

The second theory says that the distinctive pattern of the panda serves to make it easier for pandas to spot each other, which can be useful both when the animals wish to make contact and when they do not (suppose that the wind is blowing in the "wrong" direction and a panda entering new territory has not picked up on the scent of the resident panda, then it would be quite handy if somehow the two could spot each other at a safe distance, thus avoiding an ugly confrontation).

My "two cents": the panda's switch from a carnivore's way of life to a herbivore's way of life, though perhaps gradual, was surely grounded in some particular feature, or combination of features, belonging to the original, carnivore panda, which panda surely did not look like the present panda. If we assume that the original, carnivore panda may have had lots of natural enemies in its original habitat, and if we also assume that the original, carnivore panda was facing formidable competitors, then it would make sense for the vulnerable, original, carnivore panda to more and more switch to a diet where there was little competition, and in a habitat where the panda's enemies were limited. It would seem that the forests where the bamboo plant grows is just such a habitat.

Animals in the wild do not generally make such drastic changes in their behavior or in their habitat without a very good reason, the classic example of such specialization being the giraffe, which grew a neck that was so long that it permitted its owner to reach high up into the trees and dine off the leaves there, with competition only from the elephant, which can twist off branches from larger trees and can even fell smaller trees, but the elephant is very migratory, firstly, and it does not dine exclusively on tree leaves, hence it cannot have been a formidable competitor to the giraffe.

Perhaps the giraffe did not radically change its habitat (though trees tend to grow not in the open savannah (the grasslands buffet of the majority of the hoofed animals), but on its fringes), but in any case, in developing a long neck (think of a building crane), the giraffe also developed a "building crane platform" (i.e., a set of powerful legs) that could stabilize the "building crane", and these powerful legs proved to be the new creature's – the giraffe's – main form of protection from predators, since the kick of a giraffe can be debilitating if not deadly.

It is therefore quite likely, if we accept the "two cents" offered here, that the herbivore giant panda, living in the relatively marginal habitat where the bamboo plant grows, did not need camouflage, but instead, given the herbivore panda's low metabolism and resulting preference for solitude that was linked to the bamboo diet, developed its special color pattern as an aid in spotting – and being spotted by – its fellows, whether the goal was avoidance or contact. (Granted, there may be some holes in the "facts" presented here, such as the apparent fact that the herbivore panda's habitat formerly encompassed a much greater span of territory, including lowlands, though it is hard to imagine how an animal that is dressed for the autumn could thrive in the baking heat of summer, as it were. Since the question of the why and wherefore of the panda's special coloration is not an open-and-shut case, I leave it to the reader to decide.)

There's something about pandas – why?

Not everyone is wild about pandas, but most people seem to be, and the two most obvious reasons are 1) the panda's endearing, gently curved appearance and 2) its – for the most part – gentle nature (but pandas can become aggressive, and are at such times dangerous – see the warning elsewhere in this article!) that almost invites a hug. Another possible reason is that there is an innate urge in us humans to communicate with all wild animals, even the ferocious ones, so when we encounter a non-threatening subspecies of an otherwise ferocious species, it's as if the sum total of our urge to communicate with all of the subspecies of that species – including the threatening ones – gets channeled into communicating with the non-threatening subspecies – or so this armchair psychologist suspects!

Cute Pandas in China

How many giant pandas are there left in the world?

This is today a controversial if not explosive issue, with possible vested interests on at least one if not both sides!  According to a 2004 survey made by WWF (but remember that it is WWF that sponsors the giant panda and therefore WWF may – but may not! – tend to be biased against any study that challenges the notion that the giant panda is no longer threatened), there are upwards of 1600 giant pandas living in the wild in China (they do not live in the wild anywhere else).

The WWF study is based on an observation of the size of the undigested pieces of bamboo (bamboo hull, or outer plant material) present in the panda's poop (aka scat, but quite honestly, I think that a scientific-euphemistic term like "scat" sounds much nastier than just plain old "poop"!). The reasoning here is that from counting the number and size of the bite-sized pieces of excreted bamboo hull over a given territory, one can extrapolate from this in order to arrive at a reasonable estimate of the number of giant pandas living in the wild. It must be said that when the WWF first got involved with helping to save the panda about two decades ago, it was estimated (the 1974-77 survey) that there were only about 1000 giant pandas living in the wild, so the figure of 1600 giant pandas represents a significant improvement under all circumstances, thanks to the efforts of WWF.

A new, 2006 study, conducted by a Chinese research team (Zhan et al, 2006) at the Wanglang Nature Reserve in Sichuan Province, which study involves an alternative, DNA-based estimate of the number of giant pandas living in the wild, arrived at the conclusion that there could be upwards of 3000 such individuals living in the wild, or roughly double the figure that was reported in the 2004 WWF study. The WWF protested the findings, perhaps for very solid scientific reasons, or perhaps because the WWF felt that even if true, the figures would lead to the perhaps premature conclusion that it was no longer necessary to devote so much time and effort – and Yuan! (billions of Yuan – $1= 6.5 Yuan, circa – are spent annually on this endeavor) – to the preservation of the giant panda.

The DNA-based study examined of course the DNA of the panda poop, from which one can conceivably determine the number of giant panda individuals responsible for the poop remains in question (a second, third, fourth, etc., individual could conceivably poop near or on the poop remains left by the preceeding individual(s)).

On first pass, it would seem that the DNA-based study is on much more solid scientific footing, and the study may yet prove to be correct, if other researchers follow in the first research group's poop-steps, as it were. In the meantime, many scientists as well as members of WWF have challenged the DNA-based study's findings, so for the time being, there is no conclusive evidence, even if we are left believing in a counting system (the WWF's) that seems oddly unscientific in this very scientific of ages. I propose that the reader arm him-/ herself with a bit of healthy skepticism when confronted with the controversial findings of any such study, whether it is old-fashioned or hyper-modern.

Less than 150 giant pandas live in research & breeding centers in China and in zoos in China and around the world.

How are the giant pandas distributed in the two mountain areas?

Surprisingly, even though the giant panda habitats in the Minshan Mountains area (Sichuan and Gansu Provinces) are larger, viewed collectively, fewer giant pandas live in these habitats – only about 45% of the total population of giant pandas living in the wild, in fact, live in the Minshan Mountains area, while the remainder live in the much smaller geographical area of the Qinling Mountains of Shaanxi Province.

However, it must be said that the black and white panda lives in the Minshan Mountains area while the light-brown and dark-brown panda lives in the Qinling Mountains area, so there could conceivably be a difference in the reproductive capabilities of the two subspecies that is at the heart of this seeming discrepancy (the other possible explanation that springs to mind is that the figures for both of these species are wildly off the mark, if the DNA-based estimate is closer to the truth, so it might indeed prove to be the case that there are in fact more individuals living in the larger Minshan Mountains area).

Does the panda produce specific sounds, or calls?

Yes, they produce a number of different sounds for specific situations. For example, they "bleat" (produce a twittering, goat-like sound) when they wish to come in neutral ("non-romantic") contact with a fellow panda, they produce a chomping sound (think of a horse literally chomping at the bit) that is intended as a warning to another panda not to come closer, they "bark" sharply when they wish to scare off an enemy (i.e., a non-panda, or a mother panda might "bark" at an encroaching panda), they make a chirping sound when seeking a mate, and they "honk" when in distress (panda cubs whimper and make croaking sounds in order to get mother's attention). And finally, a panda will squeal in a manner not dissimilar to the pig when in pain, or when it wishes to "prostrate itself", i.e., demonstrate submission.

Are infant pandas born looking like their moms?

Hardly! They are born hairless and pink, like baby mice. Actually, the infant panda, though it looks as if its pink skin is bare, is covered in a very sparse "down" of fine white hair, but after only a month or so, it begins to take on the color pattern of its parents (either black and white or light-brown and dark-brown, as the case may be).

How do "teenage" pandas know when it is time to strike out on their own?

When their mothers let them know! The "teenage" panda/ young adult panda – usually between the age of 2 to 3 – is driven off by mother panda when the latter begins to make a den in preparation for the arrival of the next panda infant – mother panda will have trouble enough feeding herself and taking care of the new infant without having to bother with an overgrown teenager! The reason that the age of the unwelcome teenager can vary by ½ (note that 3 – 2 = 1 and 1/2 ("one divided by 2") = ½) is that mother panda may be delayed in finding a mate, or the first attempt at inception didn't result in pregnancy. In theory, I reckon, a son or a daughter could live indefinitely with mom, as long as mom doesn't get pregnant.

Do pandas keep the bathroom and the dining room separated?

In the wild, pandas constantly move from place to place, so when they poop, they just move on to a fresh location in order to dine, rest, play, etc. – giant pandas keep themselves clean by various grooming methods, from "combing" their pelt with their paws to first wetting their paws then rubbing themselves to simply licking the soiled spot with their tongue. At least once a day, they take a break from eating where they groom themselves – and each other – in all or some of these various ways.

In captivity, pandas cannot roam from place to place, therefore the panda's human keepers must collect and dispose of the panda's poop.

Does the giant panda keep a daytime-only foraging schedule?

The short answer is "No". Most animals are either nocturnal ("night active") or diurnal ("day active");  the giant panda is neither, instead, it makes use of both the day and the night in its 24-hour, cyclical schedule. The typical cyclical schedule of an adult giant panda looks like so:

From 12:00 AM (midnight) to 2:00 AM – a rest period
From 2:00 AM to 7:40 AM – breakfast
From 7:40 AM to 10:30AM – morning break
From 10:30AM  to 11:00 AM – a recess/ play period
From 11:00 AM to 12:00 PM (noon) – lunch
From 12:00 PM to 2:30 PM – afternoon break
From 2:30 PM to 9:00 PM – supper
From 9:00 PM to 12:00 AM (midnight) – main sleep period

As can be seen, the giant panda sleeps and lazes around from 9:00 PM to 2:00 AM, even if it only sleeps soundly during the first three hours of this five-hour "beauty rest" period. Note also that these periods do not represent discrete boundaries; instead, the one activity slowly morphs into the next. For example, pandas can continue to enjoy breakfast until 9:00 AM.

When is the best time of day for humans to visit pandas?

The most rewarding periods for humans to observe the panda are the times of day when the panda is either at play or is eating. A giant panda has "tanked up" enough to be relatively satisfied and in good humor by late morning – between 7:30 AM and 9:00 AM – that it does not mind the presence of human visitors, hence any time before 9:00 AM is an excellent time to pay a visit to the giant panda.

What kind of climate do pandas prefer?

Firstly, giant pandas aren't occupied with what kind of climate they like or don't like! They have to live where the bamboo plant grows, and that is precisely what the giant panda has chosen to do, even though, by rights, it is principally a meat-eater, not principally a plant-eater. That said, the panda cannot live in a climate that is too warm, given its stocky body and its thick fur, so in a sense, the panda has a "preference" for cooler, not warmer, climes, but this is the result of evolution, not personal whim.

The giant panda set about adapting – over millions, if not over zillions, of years – to the climate in which their main foodstuff, bamboo, was located. That location – today at least – is the aforementioned mountains of Suchuan, Gansu and Shanxi Provinces, which just happens to be a cool and moist, sometimes snowy (but never freezing, except for the occasional hailstorm) climate in which the giant panda thrives. Since the giant panda cannot hibernate, given the demands placed on it by its special, low-calorie diet, when the temperature drops below a certain level, even inside the gaint panda's preferred habitat, the giant panda simply descends farther down the mountain until it finds a spot where it can eat and which suits its late-autumn suit, as it were.

How do giant pandas compare to other bears, size-wise?

The giant panda is roughly the same size as the American and the Asiatic black bear, i.e., it measures between 4-6 feet long on all fours. The general body shape – less the special head of the panda, of course – of all three of these bears is roughly the same.

How does the giant panda's sense of sight, hearing and smell stack up, compared to other bears?

The panda has an excellent sense of hearing and smell, but rates pretty poorly when it comes to vision – the panda is in fact extra-reliant on its sense of smell and its hearing in order to compensate for its short-sightedness (one line of thought concerning the special dual coloration of the panda says that its starkly contrasting coloration is an aid in helping the animal to spot other pandas and thus avoid unwanted, or solicit wanted, contact, as the case may be).

Does the giant panda hibernate?

The short answer is "No", and this is owing to the fact that with its low calorie bamboo diet, the panda could simply not store enough fat reserves to survive the typical hibernation period characteristic of other bear types. To avoid the need even for hibernation (such as a lack of food during the coldest period of winter), the panda simply descends down the mountain until it finds a more suitable temperature where food is available and it can keep on filling its stomach (the giant panda is more gourmand than gourmet!).

Do pandas stand up on their hind legs and/or walk upright?

Definitely "No" to both! It is not even certain that the giant panda's legs and hips can support its upper torso well enough for this activity – the giant panda is no trim, muscular silverback gorilla! When sitting and lolling around, the panda typically leans against a tree trunk, in much the same way that a human prefers to sit in a chair (with a supporting back) instead of on a stool. There are some images on the Internet of pandas standing erect, but such images are considered to be fake, i.e., digitally manipulated.

Can pandas dunk?

Nope, but they are pretty darn good swimmers!

Can pandas climb trees?

Yeps, they are quite good at it too!  In fact, they are already agile climbers by the tender age of 6 months, though with a lot yet to learn of course. Pandas have very sharp, very strong, made-for-climbing claws on both their front as well as their back feet.

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