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The giant panda is a national treasure in China and is therefore protected by law in its bamboo forest home. This unique bear has long been revered by the Chinese and can be found in Chinese art dating back thousands of years. The Chinese call their beloved pandas large bear-cats. Giant pandas have also fascinated people living outside of China; French Missionary Pere Armand David first described them for science in Now, more than years later, the worldwide love for pandas has been combined with international efforts to keep them from becoming extinct.
How did the panda get its colors? We aren't exactly sure. One theory is that pandas developed the contrasting black and white colors over time so they would stand out in the forest and be able to find each other to mate. Another idea is that the broad blockings of contrasting color may serve to camouflage the panda in the bamboo or treetops.
Anyone who's tried to spot one of our panda cubs up in the tree napping can verify how difficult that can be!
Scientists have yet to confirm what the real purpose of the panda's coloration is. Each panda has markings that are slightly different from any another panda. There is also a rare brown and white variation of the giant panda. Are giant pandas bears? For years scientists have wondered whether pandas are a type of bear, raccoon, or something all their own.
Giant pandas are similar to other bears in their general looks, the way they walk and climb, their skull characteristics, and, importantly, their social system and reproductive biology.
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It's necessary to know that pandas are bears, because the more we know about pandas, the better we can help them reproduce and survive. Pandas are arguably the most vocal of all the bear species. Pandas don't roar the way you think of a brown bear roaring. Other vocalizations include honks, huffs, barks, and growls. Young cubs are known to croak and squeal. There are other ways pandas communicate, too. Both male and female pandas have a scent gland underneath their short tail that secretes a waxy substance used to leave scent marks.
Pandas scent mark trees, rocks, bamboo, and bushes. The scent is pretty strong. Human noses can smell the stinky, waxy scent mark from about a foot away, but pandas are more sensitive to smell, so to them it's even stronger!
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Another panda can detect the sex, age, reproductive condition, social status, and even individual identity of the scent maker—as well as how long that scent has been there. It seems that pandas are most interested in higher-placed scent marks; the panda with the highest scent mark is obviously the biggest—or at least the tallest—panda.
They need old-growth conifer forests with at least two bamboo species and water access. These old-growth forests provide old, hollow logs and tree stumps large enough for panda dens. Like other bears, pandas spend most of the day eating and sleeping. Bamboo is the most important plant for giant pandas.
They spend at least 12 hours each day eating bamboo. Because bamboo is so low in nutrients, pandas eat a lot of it daily. Pandas use their teeth to peel off the tough outer layers to reveal the soft inner tissue of the stalk.
Strong jawbones and cheek muscles help pandas crush and chew the thick stalks with their flattened back teeth. Bamboo leaves are also on the menu, as pandas strip them off the stalks, wad them up, and eat them. Giant pandas have also been known to eat grasses, bulbs, fruits, some insects, and even rodents and carrion—pretty much whatever they can find.
At the San Diego Zoo, pandas are offered bamboo, carrots, yams, apples, and special biscuits designed for leaf-eating animals called leafeater biscuits that are made of grain and packed with all the vitamins and minerals pandas need. Pandas are always associated with bamboo, but they need more than just bamboo to make a home. San Diego Zoo scientists have found that suitable panda habitat requires old-growth conifer forests with at least two species of bamboo and water access.
Why is old-growth forest habitat important for pandas? It provides old, hollow logs and tree stumps large enough for panda dens, and it also provides shelter and nutrients for the bamboo growing there. In areas where bamboo is not plentiful, the home range may be larger. Like other bears, they spend most of the day eating and sleeping. There are two exceptions to this less-than-welcoming attitude: Although pandas are generally solitary as adults, they are exposed to the scents of other neighboring pandas that have crossed over their path days or weeks before.
If a female is starting her estrus soon, it makes sense that she would need to advertise her status to any males that might be in the area. She scent marks, and a male that comes across her scent a few days later can recognize the change in her status via that scent mark. Our research in Wolong has confirmed that males are more interested in scent from a female who was known to be in estrus at the time she left the scent. This is important, as there is only a two- to three-day period that the female is receptive to breeding.
When she is no longer receptive, the male moves on to find another willing female. He does not help raise any cubs born. Pandas have a slow reproductive rate: In the wild, a typical female panda may bear about five litters in her lifetime.
Giant pandas are only about the size of a stick of butter at birth, and they're hairless and helpless. The panda mother gives great care to her tiny cub, usually cradling it in one paw and holding it close to her chest.
For several days after birth, the mother does not leave the den, not even to eat or drink! The cub's eyes open at 50 to 60 days of age, and by 10 weeks the cub begins to crawl.
Its teeth appear by the time it is 14 weeks old, and mother and cub spend much less time using their den. By 21 weeks, the cub is able to walk pretty well. At this time, the cub starts to play with its mother, and at 7 to 9 months of age, it starts attempting to eat bamboo. The cub continues to nurse until about 18 months of age. At this time, the mother is ready to send the cub off on its own, so she can prepare for her next cub.
Once a young panda reaches a weight of about pounds 50 kilograms and is about 2. Long ago, panda cubs were also prey to tigers and leopards, as their relatively slow gait on the ground made them easy pickings. To stay safe, solitary cubs scamper high in trees and remain there until their mother returns, spending hours and hours asleep up in those trees.
When they are resting quietly in the branches, they can be hard to spot. Today, pandas have fewer predators than they did historically. Tigers are generally not found in what remains of panda habitat, and leopards are found in reduced numbers.
But the drive to remain safe is still the same, and is seen even in pandas housed in zoos and breeding centers. After years of red tape and tons of application paperwork, the Zoo and China agreed on a year research loan of two giant pandas, Bai Yun and Shi Shi, who arrived at the Zoo in A brand-new exhibit area was built for our panda guests, which has since been expanded and renovated and is now called the Giant Panda Research Station.
Inour panda loan was extended for another five years and was renewed in Of the six pandas born at our zoo, five now live in China, per our loan agreement, where they continue to make us proud! The San Diego Zoo is currently home to three giant pandas: We grow about 70 different kinds of bamboo and harvest over pounds of bamboo for our pandas every week.