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The Giant panda is a mammal classified in the bear family, Ursidae, native to central and southern China. There is on-going debate as to whether this creature is truly a bear or more related to the raccoon rather than the bear, or perhaps in a family of its own. Recent genetic research has tended to support the conclusion that the Giant panda is in fact a bear, but one that diverged relatively early from the rest of the family Ursidae.


 


The Giant panda has a very distinctive black-and-white coat, and adults measure around 1.5m long and around 75cm tall at the shoulder. It lives in mountainous regions, such as Sichuan, Gansu, Shaanxi, and Tibet. Since the latter half of the 20th century, the panda has become an informal national emblem for China, and its image is found on many Chinese gold coins.

Paw: The Giant panda has an unusual paw, with a "thumb" and five fingers; the "thumb" is actually a modified sesamoid bone. Stephen Jay Gould wrote an essay about this, then used the title The Panda's Thumb for a book of collected essays. The Giant panda has a short tail, approximately 15 cm long.


On the Menu: Despite being taxonomically a carnivore, the panda has a diet that is overwhelmingly herbivorous. The Giant panda eats shoots and leaves, living almost entirely on bamboo. Pandas are also known to eat eggs, the occasional fish, and some insects along with their bamboo diet. These are necessary sources of protein. Some zoos also feed their pandas specially formulated biscuits, fruitsicles or other treats to supplement their bamboo intake. Like other subtropical mammals, the Giant panda does not hibernate.

Pandas in Trouble: Easily recognizable through its large, distinctive black patches around the eyes, ears and on its rotund body, the Giant panda is an endangered animal: an estimated 1600 pandas live in the wild and some 188 were reported to live in captivity at the end of 2005. However, several instances of successful captive-breeding in 2005 have pushed the population closer to 300.

Public Favorite: The Giant panda has long been a favorite of the public, at least partly on account of the fact that the species has an appealing baby-like cuteness that makes it seem to resemble a living teddy bear.

The fact that it is usually depicted reclining peacefully eating bamboo, as opposed to hunting, also adds to its image of innocence. Though the Giant panda is often assumed docile because of their cuteness, they have been known to attack humans, usually assumed to be out of irritation rather than predatory behavior.

Life span: Giant pandas can usually live to be 20-30 years old while living in captivity.

 



Birds and Bees: Giant pandas reproduce very slowly and infant mortality is high. Growth is slow and pandas may not reach sexual maturity until they are five to seven years old. The mating season usually takes place from mid-March to mid-May. During this time, two to five males can compete for one female; the male with the highest rank gets the female. When mating, the female is in a crouching, head-down position as the male mounts from behind. Copulation time is short, ranging from thirty seconds to five minutes, but the male may mount repeatedly to ensure successful fertilization. Mating is also a very noisy time, accompanied by moaning and squealing.

Gestation Period: The whole gestation period ranges from 83 to 163 days, with 135 days being the average. Baby pandas weigh only 90 to 130 grams, which is about 1/900th of the mother’s weight. Usually, the female panda gives birth to one or two panda cubs. Since baby pandas are born very small and helpless, they need the mother’s undivided attention, so she is able to care for only one of her cubs. She usually abandons one of her cubs, and it dies soon after birth. At this time, scientists do not know how the female chooses which cub to raise, and this is a topic of ongoing research.

Single Mother: The father has no part in helping with raising the cub. When the cub is first born, it is pink, naked and blind. It nurses from its mother's breast 6–14 times a day for up to 30 minutes each time.

For three to four hours, the mother might leave the den to feed, which leaves the panda cub defenseless. One to two weeks after birth, the cub's skin turns gray where its hair will eventually become black. A slight pink color may appear on the panda's fur, as a result of a chemical reaction between the fur and its mother's saliva.

They Grow Up So Fast: A month after birth, the color pattern of the cub’s fur is fully developed. A cub's fur is soft as silk and coarsens with age. The cub begins to crawl at 75 to 90 days and the mothers play with their cubs by rolling and wrestling with them. The cubs are able to eat small quantities of bamboo after six months, though mother's milk remains the primary food source for most of the first year. Giant panda cubs weigh 45 kg at one year and live with their mother until they are 18 months to two years old. The interval between births in the wild is generally two years.


What's in a Name? The name "panda" originates with a Himalayan language, possibly Nepalese. And as used in the West it was originally applied to the Red panda, to which the Giant panda was thought to be related. Until its relation to the red panda was discovered in 1901, the Giant panda was known as Mottled Bear (Ailuropus melanoleucus) or Partli-colored Bear.

In Chinese, the Giant panda is called the "large bear cat", or "cat bear" , a term usually used only in Taiwan.

Most bears' eyes have round pupils. The exception is the Giant panda, whose pupils are vertical slits, like cats' eyes. It is these unusual eyes that inspired the Chinese to call the panda the "Giant bear cat".

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 Kingdom: Animalia

 Phylum: Chordata

 Class: Mammalia

 Order: Carnivora

 Family: Ursidae

 Genus: Ailuropoda

 Species: Melanoleuca