• About
    This Site
  • Is a Panda
    a Bear?
  • More
    Panda Facts
  • Scientific
  • Legend of
    Panda Markings

National Zoo PandasThe Giant Panda: The Science of Finding Food website is a companion to the video Giant Pandas: The Science of Finding Food, produced with the assistance of Friends of the National Zoo and the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, with generous funding from Fujifilm.

Purchase a DVD at our online Video Store.

All pandas photos in this site are by Jessie Cohen/NZP. Special thanks to Huchen Zhang for calligraphy representations and Lahaja Furaha for activity and instructional design input for this site.






Giant pandas and bears share features that make them seem closely related. But giant pandas and red pandas share similar features, as do red pandas and raccoons. So just what is the giant panda—a special bear, a giant raccoon, or something else?

For more than a century scientists debated this puzzling question. Scientists at the National Zoo, by combining physical and genetic evidence from DNA, put the pieces together in the late 1980s. The scientists used the most modern scientific methods to examine cells from the blood of giant pandas, raccoons, and six kinds of bears. They compared DNA and chromosomes to see which animals were closely related. The scientists concluded that the giant panda is closely related to the bear. And the red panda turns out to be more closely related to what looks like a raccoon.

They combined evidence from the physical appearance of the animals with genetic evidence. They concluded that the modern bear and raccoon families shared a common ancestor 35-40 million years ago. The giant panda's ancestors were the same as the bear's, but the panda has been evolving from its bear cousins for about 20 million years. It is now so different from other bears that scientists suggest that it be placed within a separate group of the bear family.

 Watch "Is a Panda a Bear?"

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  • Giant pandas have lived for millions of years in China's bamboo forests. They have become uniquely adapted to feeding and reproducing in this habitat. Human disruption of the bamboo forests has put them in serious danger of extinction.

  • Giant pandas spend most of their time doing two things, eating and sleeping.

  • A panda's life revolves around bamboo. Ninety-nine percent of its diet comes from this plant.

  • Bamboo is a tough plant to chew and digest, but pandas are built to take on the job. A panda's thick, heavy skull, massive jaw muscles, and powerful teeth help it to eat bamboo as easily as you eat celery.

  • Giant pandas bite off pieces of bamboo with their molars, or back teeth. Their molars are seven times as big as human molars.

  • A panda has a tough esophagus and thick stomach walls to protect it from sharp bamboo splinters. But bamboo is 90 percent indigestible plant material. To get adequate nutrients from the bamboo, pandas must eat a lot of it. Because of this, they need to have access to huge areas of it in the wild.

  • Pandas have a false "thumb"; it is really an extension of the wrist bone. (Humans have a true opposable thumb.) When it holds bamboo, a panda presses the shaft against the sixth "digit" of its paw. It can't wrap the false thumb around an object as humans do.

  • In the course of a year, pandas will mate only during two or three days in the spring. They may encounter other pandas at different times of the year but will not mate.

  • A female panda doesn't look pregnant, even when she is about to give birth. Her cub is so small that she doesn't gain any weight.

  • A female panda will bear one or two clubs. Twins are common, but one usually dies. The cubs generally have a high death rate (about 50 percent in the wild). A newborn cub is very small, weighing only about the same as a stick of butter—around four ounces. Weak and fragile, it is completely dependent on its mother.

  • A panda cub will stay with its mother until it is about two years old. A panda reaches maturity in the wild at age five or six.

  • Pandas may look cute, but they are wild animals and therefore can be dangerous. Giant pandas will defend their territory with their long claws and sharp teeth.

Watch "How Pandas Find Bamboo"
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Watch "The Panda's Thumb"
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Every scientist uses the scientific method when conducting an experiment. What is the scientific method?

  • Make an observation.

  • Ask a question about something you've observed.

  • From that question, form a hypothesis where you predict the answer to your question.

  • Create a method to test your hypothesis. Make observations and record data according to the method you created.

  • Analyze the data.

  • Form a conclusion about whether your prediction was confirmed or not.

Download the "Be a Scientist" worksheet.

Watch "The Scientific Method"

Watch "How Scientists think Pandas Find Bamboo"

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National Zoo PandasHow Did Pandas Get Their Markings?

This ancient legend describes why pandas have their distinctive black and white coats.

There was a time long ago in the bamboo forests of China when giant pandas were all white. One day a certain panda, while sitting contentedly and browsing on a bamboo branch, was attacked by a hungry leopard. A brave shepherdess named Losang, who was guarding her flock nearby with her three sisters, heard the terrified panda and rushed to save it.

But the four shepherdesses and the panda together were no match for the leopard. News soon spread that the lives of the panda and all four of the shepherdesses were lost in the big cat's attack.

The other pandas living high in the mountains soon discovered that one of their kin had died and that the four shepherdesses had perished trying to save him. They ambled down into the valley, crying all the while, to attend the funeral. The pandas all wore black arm bands to show their grief.

As the pandas wept they rubbed their eyes, grabbed their ears, and hugged each other. The dye from the arm bands, wetted by their tears, began to run. Soon the pandas' white coats were stained dark around their eyes and ears and in big bands across their bodies. Every panda born since that time has carried these same markings on its coat.


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