The iconic black and white giant panda is a round, stocky bear with a short tail. Adults are 2 to 3 feet tall at the shoulder and twice as long, weighing 200 to 250 pounds. In addition to the claws all bears have on their paws, the panda has an extra, opposable digit. This “panda’s thumb” confused historical zoologists puzzling over where the panda fit in the taxonomic scheme, but this digit is not truly a thumb at all. Rather, it is the protruding end of the panda’s wrist bone, covered by a thick pad of skin.
Diet and Habitat
Pandas live in three central Chinese provinces, in forests 5,000 to 10,000 feet above sea level that have dense bamboo thickets. Although the giant panda eats other vegetation and the occasional small vertebrate, bamboo makes up 99 percent of its diet. Their diet may be primarily herbivorous, but they have a carnivore’s digestive system and very little of the bamboo they eat actually is absorbed. As a result, pandas have to eat a lot of bamboo. They travel little, and spend 10 to 12 hours a day eating.
That extra claw on the panda’s front paw helps the animal to tear tough bamboo stalks and hold them as they chew. Without this unique appendage, giant pandas would have difficulty eating. Pandas typically sit upright on their rumps as they eat, leaving their front paws free to hold bamboo with the assistance of their pseudo-thumb. Large molars and powerful jaws help the pandas crush the bamboo into swallowable chunks.
Because they consume so much of it, giant pandas have a close relationship with bamboo. The plant naturally dies back in 15- to 120-year cycles, and when this happens all the bamboo in a localized area disappears for a season. This die-back forces any giant panda populations dependent on the bamboo in that area to migrate in search of new food sources. As pandas eat, they distribute bamboo seeds, encouraging new growth and protecting the ecosystem around them.
The giant panda is an endangered species. In 2004 there were 1,600 giant pandas living in the wild, and an additional 300 in various zoos and breeding centers. Panda populations are threatened by poaching, human encroachment and habitat loss. Their wild habitat is highly fragmented, making it difficult for pandas to migrate when bamboo sources are depleted. Pandas are given the highest level of protection under Chinese law, and China has established multiple breeding centers, but the animals are notoriously difficult to breed in captivity.
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