Friday, April 27, 2012


When I found out that pandas are mostly called giant pandas, I thought there must be standard pandas and miniature pandas, too, kind of like with schnauzers.  But I was wrong about that.  There is only one size of panda.  It turns out that the reason why they are called "giant" is to tell them apart from the red panda, which is silly, because red pandas don't look anything like giant pandas, and they aren't even related to each other.  But I didn't make up the rules.  I'm just telling you what they are.

Anyway, the scientific name for giant pandas is Ailuropoda melanoleuca, which means "black-and-white cat-foot."  Nobody really knows where the word "panda" came from, but it might have been from the Nepali word ponya.  The red panda was the first animal to be called "panda," and the giant panda was originally called the "mottled bear" or "particolored bear."

In 1901, people decided the red panda and the mottled bear were related, and that's when they came up with the name "giant panda" for the bigger, black-and-white animal.  The Chinese have about 20 names for giant pandas, including "spotted bear," "bamboo bear," "large bear cat," or just "bear cat."  The reason why people thought pandas looked like cats was probably because the pupils of pandas' eyes have a slit shape, like cats' pupils, instead of being round, like other bears' pupils.

So after telling you all that stuff about names, I will just say that whenever I use the word "panda" in this blog entry, I am talking about the giant panda, and not the red panda.  And I will also mention that the panda is a real bear, just like a grizzly or a polar bear is.  Except that you don't usually hear about pandas killing and eating people, like those other bears do sometimes.  And this is likely because pandas are only interested in eating bamboo, and not humans.  But I will talk more about their diet in a minute.

Pandas live in central China, in some mountain ranges in Sichuan, Shaanxi, and Gansu provinces.  A long time ago, pandas lived in the lowlands, but then people came and started cutting down the trees and making farms.  So the pandas moved up to the mountains.  They live in forests where there is a lot of bamboo growing in the understory, below the bigger, taller trees.  Mostly, these areas are 5,000 to 10,000 feet in altitude, and there's lots of rain and mist and thick clouds there.

Since pandas have lost so much of their habitat and also because they have a low birth rate, they are said to be ENDANGERED.  In 1958, the Wolong National Nature Reserve was set up by the Chinese government, but people didn't really know much about how to help the pandas back in those days.  Which meant that the pandas had to live in cages in kind of icky conditions, and they didn't have very many baby pandas.

But nowadays things are much different.  There are more than 50 panda reserves, and they cover 2.5 million acres.  This is over 45% of what's left of the pandas' habitat, and more than 60% of all the pandas are protected.  No one knows exactly how many pandas are still living in the wild, but it might be as many as 3,000.  There are over 200 pandas living in captivity inside China, and another 30 or so live in zoos in other countries.

Pandas are classified as carnivores, just like other bears, but 99% of their diet is bamboo.  In the wild, pandas will sometimes eat other grasses, tubers, or even birds, rodents, or carrion.  Pandas in zoos might be fed honey, eggs, fish, yams, shrub leaves, oranges, or bananas, plus bamboo, of course.

When pandas are eating, they usually like to sit upright, and they hold their bamboo with their paws.  Pandas have something called a "pseudo thumb," which is made of a specially shaped wrist bone with a fleshy pad of skin.  This helps them hold the bamboo while they crush it up with their strong jaws and teeth.

It's kind of weird that pandas eat so much bamboo, since their digestive systems are actually meant to digest meat.  So when they eat bamboo, they can't get very much energy or protein from it.  But during the millions of years that pandas have been around, they have worked out a solution to this problem, which is that they eat lots and lots and lots of bamboo.  The average panda eats 20 to 30 pounds of bamboo shoots every day.  And this means that a panda might poop as many as 40 times in one day!

Because of their diet, pandas have a very low metabolism, and they are not very energetic.  So they are happy just to sit around eating, and they try to avoid having to climb up steep hillsides.

When pandas get to an age somewhere between 4 and 8 years old, they are ready to start making baby pandas.  The female panda comes into season for only two or three days, only once a year, sometime between March and May.  After she has mated with a male panda, she has to wait 95 to 160 days for the cub to be born.  Sometimes there are two cubs, and if this happens in the wild, the mother panda usually decides which one is weaker, and she lets that one die.  Scientists think that a panda does not make enough milk for two cubs because she does not store fat in her body.  Of course, if two babies are born to a panda in captivity, both of them can be saved.

A panda cub only weighs between 3.2 and 4.6 ounces when it is born, which is really tiny, compared to the size of its mama.  The cub is born pink, blind, and toothless.  It nurses up to 14 times a day.  By the time the cub is a month old, the color pattern of its fur has developed.  It takes 75 to 80 days before the cub starts crawling.  Then at 6 months, it can begin eating a little bamboo.  But mostly it keeps nursing for the first year of its life.  A cub weighs about 100 pounds when it is a year old, but it will stay with its mother until it is 18 to 24 months old.

I think pandas are totally cute, especially since they are black-and-white, just like me.  I asked Mom if we could maybe get one of our very own, but she said no.  She said that since pandas are endangered, they need to stay in reserves or zoos where they can make baby pandas to increase their population.  Also she said there is no way she would want to clean up after an animal that poops 40 times a day!


  1. I love Pandas...and, of course, I mean the GIANT, not Red Panda. Ha. In fact, until I read your blog, I'd never heard of a Red Panda. I've got to look-up a Red Panda on the internet, but NO WAY could it be as cute as the "black & white" Panda!! I also agree with your mom; NO on the 40 lbs of poop and I'd never be able to find or afford all that bamboo!!
    Love, AP

  2. Me again...just saw photos of the Red Panda; yep...the Giant wins hands down!! In fact, the Red looks like an over-sized fox at first glance. :) Just thought I'd share my opinion...again.
    Love, AP

    1. Dear Aunt Patty,
      I think red pandas look kind of like raccoons. They have a couple of them at the KC Zoo, but of course I have never seen them because dogs aren't allowed to go to the zoo. But Mom has seen the red pandas. She likes them, but she likes giant pandas better. Black-and-white animals are always the best, if you ask me!
      Love, Piper

  3. my name is dan wise . I used to be very scared of pandas but recently I have over come my fear after going to a zoo and seeing them in their enclosures . I am now so en I wanna do when im older spired by the zoo workers I have decided what I wanna do when im older

  4. I am now so enspired by the zoo workers I would like to be one when im older *

    1. Dear Dan,
      I think it would be really fun to work with zoo animals, so if that's what you want to do, go for it!
      Best wishes! Piper
      P.S. I'm glad you aren't afraid of pandas anymore.