Species: A. melanoleuca
The giant panda is one of the most iconic animals in the world, easily recognized by its black-and-white coloring, and projects the image of a soft, affable creature. It has also become a symbol of animal conservation, immortalized on the logo of the World Wildlife Federation. Due to human encroachment, the panda has become an endangered species. Even today this species suffers from habitat loss and very low birthrates. However, as a result of strong conservation efforts in recent times, especially bolstered by an immense level of international support and collaboration, the giant panda population is considered to be on the rise. According to a 2006 study using DNA analysis, there are estimated to be as many as 2,000 – 3,000 giant pandas in the wilds of China.
The panda is most readily distinguished by its black-and-white coat; it has black eye patches, ears, limbs, and shoulders. Its fur is thick and wooly, which help insulate against the forest cold. Beneath its seemingly cuddly exterior lies a muscular frame, and within its soft muzzle is a strong jaw lined with large molars. Its paw has a larger radial sesamoid bone than most other bears – a “thumb” – that helps it grip and eat bamboo. After the sloth bear, the giant panda has the longest tail of any bear at 4 – 6 inches long.
The giant panda’s diet is composed of about 99% bamboo. It is known to eat 25 different species of bamboo in the wild. The giant panda is also known to eat eggs, fish, fruits, honey, yams, and shrub leaves.
The giant panda’s range is now narrowly defined in select mountainous areas of the Sichuan, Shaanxi, and Gansu provinces of China. It once inhabited lowlands areas but has since been pushed out of those regions due to farming and deforestation.
A female can have, on average, 2 – 3 cubs in a lifetime. Pandas do not usually reach sexual maturity until 5 – 7 years of age. Mating generally takes place from the middle of March to the middle of May. Gestation lasts anywhere from about 83 – 163 days, with 135 days being the average.