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The giant panda is a particularly recognizable creature to animal lovers of every country because of its unique markings as well as its recognition as an endangered species. The giant panda lives throughout southwest China and as of 2004 only 1,600 of these magnificent creatures were known to be surviving in the wild1. As conservation efforts have continued research facilities in collaboration with zoos worldwide have participated in breeding programs in hopes that they can help to bolster the giant panda population and prevent this unique species from becoming extinct.
How big is the Giant Panda?
The giant panda measures in at approximately 5 feet from the tip of their nose to their rump and they also have a tail which is around 4 to 6 inches long. Of course the length of pandas varies just as the height of humans varies; however, in general these numbers account for the average length of giant pandas. As with most species the male of the species tends to be larger than the female and where the average female giant panda weighs around 280 pounds the male comes in at around 10 to 20% heavier at around 330 pounds on average. These weighs are average weights for the giant panda and they certainly vary between individuals, in fact the mated pair of pandas at the San Diego Zoo female Bai Yun and male Gao Gao weigh 217 pounds and 170 pounds respectively.
The Infant Giant Panda
The giant panda resembles a typical bear in shape with a bulky body; however, its color and a few other unique aspects make the panda stand out from other members of the bear family. When the giant panda cub is born it is pink in color with light wispy hairs that will eventually grow in to a thick coat. At birth baby pandas are not only toothless but they are also completely blind and dependent upon the mother panda for their survival. Ironically where the tiny baby pandas rely exclusively on their mothers for survival the actual task of caring for their babies is extremely difficult for the mother panda because of her large size and the tiny size of her babies. When an infant panda is born it weighs only 3.2 to 4.6 ounces and in order to survive and grow quickly the babies feed from their mother between 6 to 14 times every day. The mother panda generally only nurses one infant at once and as a result a mother panda in the wild that has twins will leave the weaker of the twins to die. This method may seem cruel but biologists believe that the mother panda does not possess the resources to care for two infants successfully. Unlike other bears the mother panda does not store massive amounts of fat to enable them to produce large quantities of fatty milk as well as sustain themselves while raising their young.
The Mother Giant Panda
While a mother panda is raising her infant she still must feed herself because she is not able to store fat like other bears do and so she will generally leave the den for a few hours each day in order to feed herself. Like many species of bear the male giant panda plays no part in raising the young and so the female giant panda must learn to juggle her needs with the needs of her new baby. The young giant panda changes rather quickly as they age; however, and a few weeks after their birth the skin of the young giant panda turns gray to represent the areas of the fur that will be black. Four weeks after their birth the young giant panda cub will be completely colored in the pattern which will mark its fur and while this initial fur grows in as a very soft fuzz it thickens quickly.
The Growth of the Baby Giant Panda
While the color of the skin and the growth of fur come rather quickly for the young panda cub, movement does not come as easily. This slow development of movement in the baby giant panda is perhaps a function of the need for the cub to stay safely in one place while the mother giant panda leaves the den. By two and a half to three months the young panda is able to crawl and during this time the mother panda will interact with her cub by rolling on the ground with it and stimulating the cub while also bonding. By six months the young giant panda becomes less reliant on its mother for her milk and begins to feed on bamboo; however for the first year of the baby panda’s life the mother’s milk will still act as the main source of nutrition for the young infant. By the time the young panda is weaned from its mother’s milk at the age of one year it has grown from 3.2 ounces to nearly 50 pounds but it will still remain alongside its mother until it is between one and a half to two years old. The young panda may no longer be reliant upon its mother for her milk but there is much more that this endangered creature must learn if it is to be able to survive alone.
The Sexual Maturity of the Female Giant Panda
In the wild a mother panda will spend between one and a half to two years raising their young which is believed to be why the female panda only breeds once every two years in the wild. A female panda can become sexually mature anywhere from 4 years old to 8 years old and can continue to breed until she is around 20 years old. The female panda is fertile only once a year and once she becomes pregnant she will gestate anywhere from 95 to 160 days. While giant pandas reproduce naturally in the wild zoos and research programs have not been as successful in encouraging mating between pandas in captivity. As a result of a loss of interest in breeding when in captivity these breeding programs turn to artificial insemination in order to impregnate female giant pandas with the sperm of male giant pandas. While giant panda breeding in captivity began as a particularly frustrating process which rarely if ever resulted in success, it has more recently become much more successful.
Where Does the Giant Panda Live?
The giant panda lives on the ground in southwest China and while they move throughout the forests giant pandas do define their territory. Female pandas especially do not tolerate other females moving in to their territory which is defined by clawing tree bark or marking with urine. The majority of the giant panda’s day is spent feeding or sleeping but unlike many other species of bear the giant panda does not make itself a “den” to live in. While the giant panda generally just lives within its territory they do occasionally climb trees or shelter from the rain in small caves and once the seasons change the pandas will migrate to seek warmer climates on higher ground. Uniquely the giant panda recognizes its territory through the arrangement of the environment rather than remembering actual items within the environment.
What Does the Giant Panda Eat?
The giant panda thrives in areas of rich bamboo growth since some 90% of their diet is made up of this tough plant. While the giant panda has the digestive system of a carnivore like most bears this creature has adapted to living as a vegetarian feeding mainly on bamboo. Due to the fact that bamboo is so low in nutritional value the panda spends approximately 12 hours each day feeding on some 40 pounds of bamboo. Bamboo is a particularly tough plant to digest and the panda has developed thick linings in its throat and stomach to allow it to process bamboo; however the majority of bamboo eaten still passes through the digestive system without being digested. Through analysis of the low nutritional content of the giant pandas diet it soon becomes easy to see why this large bear is considered to be such a lazy bear. In fact the panda is largely solitary, moves through flat terrain and sleeps quite a lot due to the fact that it has so little energy to expend through virtue of its bamboo diet.
The Carnivorous Features of the Giant Panda
The panda may have a specifically vegetarian diet it still retains carnivorous features. Aside from maintaining the digestive system of a carnivore the giant panda has also retained its ursine teeth and strong jaw muscles that enable this bear to eat meat. The large strong jaw muscles of the giant panda are actually particularly useful to the giant panda when eating their vegetarian diet of tough fibrous bamboo. He giant panda for the most part will maintain its vegetarian diet, although occasionally will feed on meat, eggs and fish if they become available to it. Unfortunately for the panda their energy levels are generally too low to successfully feed on most of these carnivorous staples. In order to simulate natural conditions when conservationists and zoos keep giant pandas they maintain a diet of bamboo for their pandas. Maintaining a diet of bamboo also helps to keep pandas in good health as they are feeding on the same diet they would have eaten in the wild.
The Problems Resulting From the Giant Panda’s Diet
There are a few issues that arise for the bamboo eating giant panda, however, as a result of their diet. Bamboo only grows in select areas and this alone tends to confine the giant panda to small areas that are hospitable to bamboo growth. As bamboo is harvested for human use the territory available to the giant panda is rapidly shrinking and this endangered species is becoming even more endangered. Another problem that arises for the giant panda as a result of its bamboo diet is that bamboo, like most plants have a lifecycle and when the bamboo dies the giant panda must have another accessible source of food. Pandas overcome this obstacle by living in areas that offer more than one species of bamboo so that when one bamboo species does go through the death of its lifecycle there is another species of bamboo available. If a giant panda does not live in an area where more than one species of bamboo is available there is a great chance that the panda will starve when the lifecycle of the bamboo ends.
The Wooly Camouflage Coat of the Giant Panda
When eating bamboo the giant panda is able to hold the stalks by utilizing a thumb like structure on its forelimbs. In addition to this thumb like structure the panda also has five fingers but it is the thumb like structure that proves most important for the panda in gripping bamboo stalks. It is not only the hands of the giant panda that serve this bear well in its native habitat; however, the giant panda’s thick and wooly coat keeps the giant panda protected in the cooler climates of the wet mountainous regions in which they live. The black and white fur, which is believed to serve as camouflage for the sunlight and shadow patterns of the temperate forests in which they live, is particularly wooly and keeps the Panda warm in the wet mountain climate. The giant panda’s wooly coat is thick and oily to protect the skin underneath and is made of a combination of both thick rough hairs and short fine hairs underneath.
The cool and wet climate that the black and white fur coat protects the panda from is the natural climate for bamboo growth and so it was necessary for the giant panda to adapt to live in these cooler climates. As farming has reduced the amount of land available for bamboo growth pandas have slowly become pushed in to higher climates and smaller areas of bamboo. As the land available for bamboo and giant panda habitats shrinks; however, so too does the population of the giant pandas. Currently there are only between 1,000 and 1,500 giant pandas living throughout China in their natural habitats. Conservation efforts have also led to a population of around 120 giant pandas living in zoos and breeding programs spotted throughout the world.
The Declining Giant Panda Population
Habitat loss and poaching have been the two largest factors influencing the giant panda population and it is only through conservation efforts and enforcement of laws against illegal poaching that the panda population is still surviving. Through the establishment of panda reserves throughout China sections of the giant panda population have been provided with protected status in hopes that this symbol of China can be saved before it is too late. Giant panda breeding programs have also contributed to the increasing population of giant pandas worldwide. While breeding programs began as a sign of diplomacy between the Peoples Republic of China and the United States they soon turned in to a loan program in which China received great amounts of money in return for loaning their pandas to American breeding programs. In addition to the large sums of money that China receives for their panda loans any cubs born out of the breeding programs become property of China and are generally returned to China a few years after their birth.
Captive Breeding of the Giant Panda
While not all breeding efforts of pandas in captivity are successful even when utilizing artificial insemination more recently the rate of panda births in captivity has been on the rise. With this increase in panda births the panda population is growing and the future of this endangered bear is looking more promising. It is argued by some; however, that the breeding programs attempts at reviving the giant panda population are futile due to the lack of ecosystems that can sustain these creatures when they are released back in to the wild. It remains to be seen as to whether or not enough bamboo rich territory can be allocated for the giant pandas that are boosting this endangered species population; however, it is certainly not a point that is going to halt breeding programs that have only recently shown promise.
The Giant Panda is a Symbol of China and Wildlife Conservation Efforts
The giant panda is a symbol of not only China but as the face of a creature on the verge of extinction. This giant bear has come to represent the impact that the human race is having on the planet in which we live and almost appears to prompt us to re-evaluate the choices we make and the impact those choices have on our planet and those who share it with us. It is unfortunate that such a great species must come to rely upon the very species that enforced its endangered status as a result of poaching and deforestation, to save it from extinction. Try as we might the human race may never be able to reverse the devastating effects that we have had on this incredible species and it just may be that the very last pandas we ever see will be those that have been bred and kept in captivity. While current breeding programs seem to be having relative success in boosting the giant panda population it is still a little too early to determine if these efforts came too late in the population decline of this historic creature. Only time will tell if the giant panda will be able to overcome the devastation that mankind has created on this single species but one thing is for sure – without the giant panda the Chinese economy and ecosystem will never be the same.
Recent Baby Panda Births
Updated on October 9, 2012
When it comes to improving the population of giant pandas, zoos are doing all that they can to work on their breeding programs. Unfortunately for the dwindling giant panda population, panda’s have proven extremely difficult to breed and impregnate in captivity. Even if breeding or impregnation is successful, many young panda cubs do not make it in to late childhood. Recently two panda births have shown both sides of the coin for the National Zoo and the San Diego Zoo.
Panda Births at The Smithsonian National Zoo
Mei Xiang, a giant female panda at the Smithsonian National Zoo had experienced five failed attempts at impregnation before 2012. Her keepers had given up hope that the giant female would ever have a cub and their hopes were dashed at experiencing a young giant panda that is until Sunday, September 16, 2012.
Mei Xiang’s keeper, Becky Malinsky just happened to log on to her zoo’s panda cam before heading to bed on that Sunday night, only to capture the sight of Mei Xiang with her newborn. The young cub was the only surviving panda cub to be born to the zoo in seven years. The successful breeding of Mei Xiang also meant that she would remain in Washington for a few more years. The young cub weighed just four ounces at birth and the sex of the baby remained a mystery as they left Mei Xiang to care for it. By Chinese tradition, young panda’s are not named for 100 days to ensure that they survive.
The 10% chance that fourteen year old Mei Xiang would become pregnant and have a cub, were overcome and the zoo and panda enthusiasts worldwide were thrilled with the cub’s birth. Sadly, the victory was not a long-lasting one. Six days after the cub’s birth, Mie Xiang could be heard calling out in distress from her cage. Veterinarian’s came to the scene and pronounced the newest member of the zoo’s family dead. The devastating loss is mysterious as well as saddening as veterinarians cannot determine a cause of death. There are no signs of infection or trauma according to the zoo and unfortunately attempts at artificial resuscitation were unsuccessful. Zoo officials know that the cub was alive just an hour prior to its death and have been awaiting the results of a necropsy to be able to determine the cause of death. Some speculate that the cub may have inhaled its mother’s milk and choked.
After the results of the cub’s necropsy were returned it was determined that the young female cub had fluid in her belly and potential problems with her liver. More tests have been ordered to help to determine the exact cause of her death. With an estimated 1,900 giant pandas in existence, the loss of Mei Xiang’s newborn cub is devastating to the population.
Panda Births at The San Diego Zoo
The San Diego Zoo welcomed their own young giant panda cub on July 29, 2012. Mother of the cub, Bai Yun, set a record with the birth of her cub having given birth to a total of six cubs since arriving at San Diego Zoo. This is the most cubs to survive birth in a breeding facility outside of China.
Bai Yun, is an elderly panda at 20 years old and zoo keepers were nervous about her pregnancy, labeling it as high risk. As keepers watched her on the panda cam they kept an eye out for any signs of distress. On Sunday, July 29th at 2:30pm, Bai Yun ended her three hours of labor and gave birth to a tiny four-ounce cub. The addition of the young cub now makes a total of four pandas for the San Diego Zoo, more pandas than any other United States zoo. These four pandas include Bai Yun, her mate Gao Gao, their three-year old male cub Yun Zi and the new cub. The other four cubs born to Bai Yun were returned to China to a panda research facility as per the zoo’s agreement with China, who own Bai Yun.
On August 22nd, 2012, zoo keepers were able to examine Bai Yun’s cub as she left the den to feed; however, there was only time enough to determine the overall health of the cub. There was not time enough to determine the cub’s sex. The cub is still unnamed as the San Diego Zoo also adheres to the Chinese tradition of not naming the cub until it survives for one hundred days. According to zoo officials it will be approximately eighteen months before the cub is ready to leave its mother’s side and around two years before it is able to live comfortably on its own.
The San Diego Zoo has done everything they can to ensure that Bei Yun has been comfortable with her surroundings throughout her time with this cub. Zoo officials note that this level of comfort has been evident in how attentive but less anxious she has been with this cub in particular.
As of October 6, 2012, the young San Diego Zoo cub was given a complete medical check and a clean bill of health. The cub has been confirmed to be a male. Since the last check the cub has grown considerably and has much improved eye sight and has completely opened his eyes. Zoo keepers measured the nine week old cub who weighed in at 6.59 lbs. The cub seemed to do well throughout the majority of his health exam, however, towards the end he became slightly more vocal at which point he was returned to Bei Yun so as not to cause stress to either of the bears.
As the hundred day mark for Bei Yun’s cub closes in, it is hard not to think about the small lost cub of the Smithsonian National Zoo. Were the young female to have made it to adulthood it is very possible that she would have been paired with Bei Yun’s cub to add to the ever dwindling giant panda population.