What is a Panda?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

The panda is arguably one of the most appealing mammals on earth. It is related to other bear species, but genetic research suggests a split about 40,000 years ago, that resulted in the animal having an elongated wrist bone similar to a thumb.

Young giant panda in a tree.
Young giant panda in a tree.

The Giant Panda, with its black and white patches, is most recognizable, but the same group of animals also includes the Red Panda, which much more resembles a raccoon or fox than a bear. Another species, roughly half the size of the Giant species, has been extinct for about a million years, though fossil records are still found of this Dwarf Panda.

Red panda climbing on a branch.
Red panda climbing on a branch.

The Giant Panda weighs about 270 pounds (122.54 kg), and can be about 5 to 6 feet (1.52-1.82m) in height. The Red Panda is much smaller, and closer in resemblance to a raccoon. It can be about 1.75 feet (.53 m) long and weigh about 11 pounds (4.98 kg). This species also has a long bushy tail that is fox-like in appearance.

Pandas eat bamboo.
Pandas eat bamboo.

The Giant and Red Panda can be found in Asia, with the largest concentrations of animals in China. Habitat of these animals is thought to have extended throughout most of Asia, according to fossil records. Now the Giant Panda is found exclusively in China. The Red Panda is found in China, India, and Nepal.

Both types are almost exclusively herbivorous, eating primarily bamboo. In captivity, the animals may enjoy eggs and yams. They are thought to be very selective regarding the type of bamboo they will eat, and tend to migrate according to bamboo types and seasons. This factor has resulted in their extreme endangerment due to habitat destruction.

However, concerted efforts by the Chinese government, and zoo breeding programs have increased the Giant Panda population, both captive and wild. The two species are both still considered endangered. Further measures and restoration of habitat is needed to consider the species once again safe. At this time, the Red Panda is not afforded the same protection.

The Giant Panda is also a fairly solitary creature in its natural surroundings. This has made breeding programs extremely challenging. Many born in captivity are now artificially inseminated to provide better opportunities for producing young. The Chinese government is also fairly proprietary regarding allowing other zoos to keep pandas. They often loan the animals to zoos in different countries for a price, so several breeding populations can be established, and inbreeding can be avoided.

As well as problems with Giant Panda mating, the babies can be stillborn, or twins may occur with one sick twin. This species will only have five to seven young in a lifetime, making it more difficult to produce a live and healthy baby, especially in captivity. The Red Panda is not quite as solitary and tends to have litters of babies. There are fewer issues with reproducing the species, but more issues with providing enough natural habitat for them.

Even though both species are now protected to a degree, more protection is needed. Wildlife experts suggest there are only about 1000 Giant Pandas remaining in the wild. In their natural setting, about 10,000 Red Pandas die per year mainly due to loss of habitat.

The Giant Panda is found only in China, while the Red Panda lives in China, Nepal and India.
The Giant Panda is found only in China, while the Red Panda lives in China, Nepal and India.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


@donasmrs-- We do have Giant Pandas in the US. They're in zoos in Washington D.C., San Diego, Atlanta and I think Memphis. You can go see them there.


Which other countries used to have Giant Pandas before?

The Giant Panda is exclusively the symbol of China now so I thought that historically these Pandas have only lived there.

I have not come across a single Chinese restaurant or establishment without a Giant Panda picture. I don't blame them. If we had such an adorable animal in the US, we would make it our national symbol too.

I didn't know that the animal in the second picture is a panda! I've seen pictures of it before and I was sure that it's a type of raccoon. That is so interesting!

Now that I look at it more closely, the feet and ears are uncharacteristic of raccoons.

I hope that Asian governments start protecting the Red Panda like the Giant Panda soon. It's a beautiful animal, it will be unfortunate if it becomes extinct.


Good article. It is very useful information. I like this site for research for my students. Gary Dominicus


I heard that giant pandas eat around 20-40 pounds (9-18 kg) of food a day whereas the average person eats about 5 pounds of food a day.

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