The giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) has an insatiable appetite for bamboo. A typical animal eats half the day—a full 12 out of every 24 hours—and relieves itself dozens of times a day. It takes 28 pounds of bamboo to satisfy a giant panda's daily dietary needs, and it hungrily plucks the stalks with elongated wrist bones that function rather like thumbs. Pandas will sometimes eat birds or rodents as well.
Wild pandas live only in remote, mountainous regions in central China. These high bamboo forests are cool and wet—just as pandas like it. They may climb as high as 13,000 feet to feed on higher slopes in the summer season.
Pandas are often seen eating in a relaxed sitting posture, with their hind legs stretched out before them. They may appear sedentary, but they are skilled tree-climbers and efficient swimmers.
Giant pandas are solitary. They have a highly developed sense of smell that males use to avoid each other and to find females for mating in the spring. After a five-month pregnancy, females give birth to a cub or two, though they cannot care for both twins. The blind infants weigh only 5 ounces at birth and cannot crawl until they reach three months of age. They are born white, and develop their much loved coloring later.
Improved conservation efforts and better survey methods show an increase in the wild panda population. Hundreds more pandas live in breeding centers and zoos, where they are always among the most popular attractions. Much of what we know about pandas comes from studying these zoo animals, because their wild cousins are so rare and elusive.
National Geographic Photography