10 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Giant Pandas
Pandas: Misunderstood Gentle Giants
Pandas have long captivated children and adults alike. These gentle giants are one of the most iconic exotic animals around the world, despite their status as an endangered species. Though these animals are well loved, there are many things about these creatures that may surprise you. Though they seem docile and simple, there are many surprising facts about these gentle giants that you might not have known.
It Took Scientists Years to Discover Why Pandas are Black and White
For years, scientists didn’t have an answer for what caused the unusual black and white coloring of giant pandas. In 2017, scientists finally figured out that their coloring is the result of a low-calorie diet that requires pandas to stay active year-round, rather than hibernating like most other bear species. Pandas are unable to molt quickly enough to change their fur color to blend into different types of surroundings, so their black and white pattern is an evolutionary compromise to help them to blend into different backgrounds throughout the year.
The black markings on their heads also help pandas to communicate with each other. The black markings on their faces may help pandas to recognize each other, and their black ears may help them to communicate aggression to would-be predators.
Pandas Don’t Hibernate
Unlike most other bears, pandas do not hibernate. Though they sleep for 12 hours a day, they cannot use hibernation to escape cold winters the way other bears can. Pandas’ diets do not consist of enough fat to allow them to hibernate during the winter. Because of their low-fat diets, pandas have relatively little body fat, despite their pleasantly plump appearance. Rather than burrowing into caves or dens the way most bears do at the first sign of winter’s approach, pandas simply find a comfortable spot to relax, and do the thing they do best: eat bamboo.
Because pandas live in mountainous regions, they are able to simply migrate to the elevations that have the most comfortable temperatures for them throughout the year. During the hot summer months, pandas move to higher elevations where the temperatures remain cooler. During colder winter months, they return to lower, warmer elevations and continue foraging for bamboo.
Pandas Are Ill-Equipped to Eat Bamboo, and Do Sometimes Eat Meat
Though pandas’ diets consist of 99% bamboo, a panda's digestive system is more like that of a carnivore than an herbivore. Even though panda’s favorite food is bamboo, their digestive systems are notoriously bad at processing this food source. Because of this, much of what a panda eats is passed as waste. To make up for this inefficiency, panda's must consume around 40 pounds of bamboo each day.
Pandas do, occasionally, eat meat. While they won’t hunt down their own prey, they also won’t turn down meat when given the opportunity to partake. In the wild, pandas may eat birds, rodents, and carrion. Pandas in captivity have been known to eat eggs and fish when offered.
Pandas Spend Most of Their Time Eating or Looking for Food
Pandas spend 10-16 hours a day foraging and eating. The rest of the day is mostly spent sleeping. Because pandas derive so little nutrition from their preferred food, they must eat massive amounts of bamboo each day to survive. Because pandas have short digestive tracts and lack special bacteria and protozoans that herbivores use to break down the cellulose in plants, pandas barely received any nutrition from bamboo, despite having evolved a culinary preference for this plant. To make up for this lake of nutritional absorption from bamboo, each panda eats, on average, about 40 pounds of bamboo every day, which takes up much of its waking life.
In addition to eating massive amounts of bamboo, pandas spend much of the rest of their days asleep in order to conserve energy. Because they don’t get much energy or nutrition from bamboo, pandas must conserve what energy they have by sleeping for much of the day.
Mother Pandas Won’t Win Any “Mother of the Year” Awards
If a mother panda has twins, usually only one of the cubs will survive in the wild. The mother panda can only produce enough milk for one cub, so she will select the stronger of the twin cubs and allow the other to die. Even in zoos, mother pandas have a natural instinct to abandon one of their babies when they have twins, caring for only the stronger of the two. Because pandas are so endangered, zoos must take special precautions to ensure the survival of every panda cub. When twin panda cubs are born, zoos rotate the two babies between the mother and an incubator, switching the cubs every few hours.
If purposely abandoning their babies wasn’t bad enough, it also isn’t uncommon for mother pandas to accidentally crush their cubs under their own body weight. Newborn panda cubs weigh only three-five ounces at birth, 1/900th of the size of their 200-pound mothers. Sometimes mother pandas will accidentally crush their tiny babies as the babies nurse. In the wild, most baby pandas die from disease or from being crushed by their mothers.
Baby Pandas Barely Look Like Pandas at Birth
Panda cubs are born pink, blind, and toothless. Newborn pandas have only a few hairs and are mostly bald. Weighing only three to five ounces, newborn giant pandas don’t exactly live up to their species’ name.
A week or two after birth, the baby panda's skin will turn grey where the fur will eventually become black. Black hairs soon begin to grow during this stage. A chemical reaction from the mother panda's saliva may cause the cub's fur to turn slightly pink. About a month after birth, the color pattern of the baby panda's fur will become fully developed.
By three weeks, panda cubs begin to look more like miniature versions of their mothers. Their black markings are more apparent, and their eyes begin to open.
Pandas Aren’t Interested in Mating
Pandas in captivity seem to have little interest in mating. This has led to scientists taking extreme measures to attempt to get pandas to reproduce, such as showing them videos of panda's mating and giving the male pandas “enhancement” medications. Many male pandas in captivity don’t seem to understand how to mate, and it is difficult to get two pandas together without them attempting to kill each other, as they are very solitary animals.
To further complicate things, Female pandas only ovulate once every year and are only fertile for two or three days during this time. Because it is difficult to get pandas to mate naturally, zookeepers often have to resort to artificial insemination. It is difficult for zookeepers to know if a female panda is pregnant until she is about ready to give birth. Pandas have no set term for their pregnancies and may be pregnant for anywhere from three to six months. Because adult pandas are so big and baby pandas are so small, it is difficult to see panda fetuses on an ultrasound. Female pandas produce the same hormones whether they are pregnant or not.
Pandas Live a Lonely Life
Pandas are generally solitary creatures. Adult pandas have their own defined territory and females are not tolerant of other females in their territory. Because it is so difficult for pandas to eat enough food to meet their energy requirements, adult pandas prefer to have their own territory, and are not welcoming of other pandas who may try to compete with them for food. Pandas may, however, communicate periodically via scent marks, calls, and occasional meetings in the wild. For the most part, though, pandas prefer to keep to themselves.
At First, Scientists Weren’t Sure if Pandas Were Bears or Raccoons
For years, there was much debate amongst scientists as to whether giant pandas were more closely related to bears or to raccoons. While pandas share many characteristics of bears, they also have some traits in common with raccoons. The bear family and the racoon family are closely related. Recent DNA evidence has shown that giant pandas are more closely related to other bears than to racoons (red pandas, on the other hand, are now known to be more closely related to raccoons). Some people, however, still believe that pandas should be considered their own separate family.
Every Panda in the World Outside of China is on Loan from China
Every captive panda in zoos outside of China is owned by the Chinese government and is displayed in the foreign country on loan. Pandas are China’s national symbol, and the country is very protective of this endangered species. China lends its pandas to zoos in other countries as a gesture of goodwill. The first giant panda to leave China was named Su-Lin, who arrived at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago in 1936.
Giant Panda Preservation
Though scientists and zoo keepers are doing everything they can to reestablish panda populations, pandas are notoriously difficult to breed. There are many strange characteristics about giant pandas that contribute to their declining populations, including their lack of interest in mating, their strange dietary preferences, their fragility at birth, and their solitary natures. Pandas are often misunderstood, but as scientists learn more about these majestic creatures, perhaps their numbers in the wild and in captivity can rise.
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© 2018 Jennifer Wilber