These deadpan clowns are China's national treasure
and have become the World Wildlife Funds (WWF) symbol of conservation.
Around the world, children of all ages adore millions f stuffed and inflatable
toys made in this animals image. However, although the panda is a
familiar figure to nearly everyone, only recently have unlocked the secrets
of this shy animals life in the wild.
Body of the Panda
The giant panda (Ailuroda melanoleauca) resembles other bears in its
general shape and body proportions. It's basic color is white with
black eye patches, ears, legs, feet, chest, and shoulders. Sometimes
the very tip of its 5-inch (13 cm) long tail is also black. In the
forest, this black-and-white pattern makes the animal very conspicuous
at close range, but on snow it practically vanishes. (Early in 1986,
a light-brown color phase of the giant panda was discovered.) Panda fur
is thick, with coarse outer hairs and extremely dense and woolly under
fur that becomes somewhat sparse on the belly. Cubs are as soft to
the touch as kittens. Adult pandas range between 5.25 and 6 feet (160 to 180 cm)
in length and may attain weights of well over 200 pounds (91 kg).
Males ad females are identically marked, but adult males usually weigh
from 10 to 20 percent more than females. The Chinese name for the
giant panda is xiongmao, or "giant cat bear," the pupils of the pandas
eyes are catlike vertical slits. All other have round pupils. A pandas forepaws are very flexible and are equipped with
a peculiar sixth digit works something like as opposable thumb. The
evolution of this "thumb" has been subject of debate for over 100 years.
In reality, the thumb is only an enlarged wrist bone (the radial sesamoid)
that is capable of independent movement. It is very important to
the panda, however, because it allows it to handle bamboo stems and leaves
(the pandas major food) with great precision and dexterity. The pandas
hind feet lack the heel pad found on other bears. Their clumsy looking,
pigeon toed walk is misleading, because pandas are able to move remarkable
ease and silence through the densest forest and roughest terrain. Because pandas must chew tough bamboo stalks for nourishment,
they have massive skulls equipped with large, crushing molars.
Powerful muscles attached to a prominent sagittal crest (a ridge of bone
on top of the skull) move the jaws. For protection from sharp bamboo
splinters, the esophagus has a tough, horny lining and the stomach is almost
gizzard like in its thick-walled, muscular construction. The rest
of the digestive system, very similar to that of a typical carnivore, is
inefficient in its handling and digestion of bamboo. Consequently,
the animal must consume up to 45 pounds (20 kg) of the plant a day to survive.
Pandas Dwindling Range and Numbers
Hunting and habitat destruction have eliminated pandas from most of
their former range. Today, they exist only in six small areas along
the eastern rim of the Tibetan Plateau, in a cold, damp coniferous forest
between 4,000 and 11,000 feet (1,200 to 3,400 m) high. The bamboo
that the pandas depend on for food is found mostly within this narrow band.
However, footprints and droppings have been recorded as high as 13,500
feet (4,040 m). Although the pandas total range encompasses some
11,300 square miles (29,500 sq. km), represents actual panda habitat.
More than half the pandas remaining in the wild life in a chain of twelve
reserves established by the Chinese. According to a recent census
conducted by China's Ministry of forestry and the World Wildlife Fund,
the wild panda population has declined by about 200 in the last decade,
to an estimated 700. Several have disappeared altogether, and others
have been reduced to fewer than 20 pandas, which is considered too small
to remain viable. Another 120 pandas or so survive in zoos, mostly