In the remote, mountainous regions of central China lives the giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca). A big eater, the average panda spends up to 14 hours a day munching on bamboo. Bamboo has very little nutritional value, so a panda needs to eat about 13 kilograms (28 pounds) of it each day to get the energy it needs.

Pandas, the most primitive living member of the bear family, have lived in these bamboo forests for millions of years. Now the solitary creatures are one of the rarest bear species in the world.

Giant pandas have developed unique adaptations for their cold, wet habitat and their penchant for bamboo. Their thick, black-and-white fur coats keep them warm. To crush tough bamboo, they have strong jaws and large, flat molar teeth. To pluck and hold bamboo, they have elongated wrist bones that work much like thumbs.

Sometimes pandas eat rodents and birds. As members of the bear family, they have the digestive system of a carnivore but have evolved to be almost complete herbivores.

Thanks to improved conservation strategies, scientists are finding that the wild panda population is slowly increasing. In fact, in 2016 the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) changed the giant panda’s conservation status from “endangered” to “vulnerable,” a notable improvement.

Land development and logging are still shrinking the pandas’ habitat, though. What remains is highly fragmented, which makes it difficult for pandas to find a mate during breeding season. To address this, conservationists are creating “corridors” of bamboo forests that connect isolated habitats.

Saving the panda helps preserve the broader environment that other plants and animals depend on for survival, including endangered species such as the golden snub-nosed monkey and the Asian crested ibis. Protection also preserves areas important to local communities that depend on the forests for food, income, cooking and heating fuel, and medicine.

  1. How does saving the Giant Panda help other species, including humans?

    • Answer

      To protect the Giant Panda, its habitat must be preserved. A healthy natural environment protects a wide variety of plants and animals that, like the giant panda, depend on that specific ecosystem for survival. Protection also helps humans. Local communities depend on the forests for food, income, cooking and heating fuel, and medicine.

  2. Are giant pandas carnivores, like other bears?

    • Answer

      Giant pandas have the digestive system of a carnivore, and they will sometimes—but rarely—eat rodents and birds. They have evolved to be primarily herbivores, depending almost completely on bamboo for their nutrition.

  3. Why are giant pandas black and white?

    • Answer

      Scientists aren’t sure why giant pandas have black and white fur, but they have a few theories. One is that the black and white coloring camouflages them. In a bamboo forest or on a snowy, rocky slope, the panda’s coloring helps it blend into its surroundings. Another theory is that the black fur absorbs heat and the white fur reflects heat, helping the panda maintain a steady body temperature. Still other scientists propose that the pattern on the coat helps pandas identify each other from far away, either so they can socialize, or more likely, so they can avoid each other. The most recent research supports the idea that the color pattern is for both camouflage in snow and forests as well as for communication, used to identify individuals and to communicate aggression. But it’s still open for debate.

Noun

a modification of an organism or its parts that makes it more fit for existence. An adaptation is passed from generation to generation.

bamboo
Noun

type of huge, woody grass.

Noun

organism that eats meat.

Noun

management of a natural resource to prevent exploitation, destruction, or neglect.

corridor
Noun

hallway, or connecting passage of land.

digestive system
Noun

series of organs and glands responsible for the ingestion, digestion, and absorption of food. Also called the alimentary canal.

Noun

organism threatened with extinction.

fragmentation
Noun

breaking up of large habitats into smaller, isolated chunks. Fragmentation is one of the main forms of habitat destruction.

Noun

environment where an organism lives throughout the year or for shorter periods of time.

Noun

organism that eats mainly plants and other producers.

nutrition
Noun

process by which living organisms obtain food or nutrients, and use it for growth.

primitive
Adjective

simple or crude.

vulnerable species
Noun

level of conservation between "near threatened" and "endangered." Vulnerable is the lowest of the "threatened" categories.