The giant panda (“black and white cat-foot”; Chinese: 大熊猫; pinyin: dà xióng māo, literally “big bear cat”), also known as panda bear or simply panda, is a bear native to south central China. It is easily recognized by the large, distinctive black patches around its eyes, over the ears, and across its round body. The name “giant panda” is sometimes used to distinguish it from the unrelated red panda. Though it belongs to the order Carnivora, the giant panda’s diet is over 99% bamboo. Giant pandas in the wild will occasionally eat other grasses, wild tubers, or even meat in the form of birds, rodents or carrion. In captivity, they may receive honey, eggs, fish, yams, shrub leaves, oranges, or bananas along with specially prepared food.
The giant panda lives in a few mountain ranges in central China, mainly in Sichuan province, but also in neighbouring Shaanxi and Gansu. As a result of farming, deforestation, and other development, the giant panda has been driven out of the lowland areas where it once lived.
The giant panda is a terrestrial animal and primarily spends its life roaming and feeding in the bamboo forests of the Qinling Mountains and in the hilly Sichuan Province. Giant pandas are generally solitary, and each adult has a defined territory, and a female is not tolerant of other females in her range. Social encounters occur primarily during the brief breeding season in which pandas in proximity to one another will gather. After mating, the male leaves the female alone to raise the cub.
Pandas were thought to fall into the crepuscular category, those who are active twice a day, at dawn and dusk; however, Jindong Zhang found that pandas may belong to a category all of their own, with activity peaks in the morning, afternoon and midnight. Due to their sheer size, pandas do not need to fear predators like other herbivores. They can therefore be active at any time of the day.
Pandas communicate through vocalization and scent marking such as clawing trees or spraying urine. They are able to climb and take shelter in hollow trees or rock crevices, but do not establish permanent dens. For this reason, pandas do not hibernate, which is similar to other subtropical mammals, and will instead move to elevations with warmer temperatures. Pandas rely primarily on spatial memory rather than visual memory.
Though the panda is often assumed to be docile, it has been known to attack humans, presumably out of irritation rather than aggression.
Initially, the primary method of breeding giant pandas in captivity was by artificial insemination, as they seemed to lose their interest in mating once they were captured. This led some scientists to try extreme methods, such as showing them videos of giant pandas mating and giving the males sildenafil (commonly known as “Viagra”). Only recently have researchers started having success with captive breeding programs, and they have now determined giant pandas have comparable breeding to some populations of the American black bear, a thriving bear species. The normal reproductive rate is considered to be one young every two years.
Giant pandas reach sexual maturity between the ages of four and eight, and may be reproductive until age 20. The mating season is between March and May, when a female goes into estrus, which lasts for two or three days and only occurs once a year. When mating, the female is in a crouching, head-down position as the male mounts her from behind. Copulation time is short, ranging from 30 seconds to five minutes, but the male may mount her repeatedly to ensure successful fertilization. The gestation period ranges from 95 to 160 days.