The Giant Panda is familiar to us all – a black and white, bear-like animal, that eats bamboo and is famous for its sad place as one of the most endangered animals on the planet.
There are in fact two species of panda, and the Giant Panda is actually a pretender to the name. The word “panda” was originally applied to the beautiful, auburn-furred Red Panda, also known as the Firefox, Cat-bear or Lesser Panda. Also an endangered species, the Red Panda lives in the Himlayas and was named by science in 1825.
The Giant Panda was discovered several decades later in 1869, and was originally given the rather unspectacular names “mottled bear” and “particolored bear”. Research showed it shared many anatomical quirks with the the Red Panda, and it quickly got its more common modern name.
The affinities between the two pandas and other Carnivores has been a contentious issue. Both showed some morphological similarities between both bears (Ursidae) and the racoon family (Procyonidae). They have been placed by various authorities at various times in both groups, and in a family of their own.
However, recent molecular research has shown that the two pandas’ similarities are an example of convergent evolution due to their bamboo diets, and are in fact only very distantly related. The Giant Panda is in fact a bear after all (after so many schoolchildren have been corrected for calling it a “Panda Bear!”) and placed in Ursidae; the Red Panda is placed in a family of its own, the Ailuridae, which has closest affinities to not only the Procyonidae, but skunks (Mephitidae) and weasels and badgers (Mustelidae).
The Giant Panda spends its life roaming the mountains of China. It formerly lived in the lowlands too, but farming, forest clearing and other development has restricted its range to China’s mountainous areas of in Sichuan, Shaanxi, and Gansu provinces.
As already mentioned, the Giant Panda’s diet mainly consists of bamboo shoots. It also suppliments its diet with meat, fish and eggs. A panda may eat up to 14kg of bamboo in a day -as the food is relatively low in nutrients, it must make up for this by eating large quantities.
Giant Pandas are solitary animals, and are very territorial, marking their territories with urine and other scent marks. Unlike some bears, pandas do not hibernate, but move to higher, warmer ground during the winter months.
As its Despite its cute appearance, Giant Pandas can be as dangerous as any other bear, and have very strong jaws adapted to eating strong vegetation.
Giant Pandas have a brief mating season, and a low birth rate, typically producing one cub at a time. This is one factor that has prevented the pandas adapting to their threats, not only from habitat loss, but also from poaching for their soft, woolly furs.
It is estimated there are around 1,590 Giant Pandas living in the wild, although some researchers believe it could be as many as 3,000. Even with some recent success with breeding pandas in Chinese zoos, the future for this charismatic mammal is looking bleak.
Meanwhile, the Red Panda is thought to have just 2,500 mature individuals in the wild, meaning it’s not that far behind its giant namesake when it comes to being endangered. It is threatened by habitat fragmentation and cultural traditions that require its pelt for certain ceremonies, may not be.
There are two types of pandas in this world – one giant, one not, but both beautiful and sadly close to extinction.