Next week, on August 22nd, a very special little guy named Bei Bei will have his first birthday. Bei Bei is a giant panda, Ailuropoda melanoleuca, who lives at the National Zoo, as do his parents Tian Tian and Mei Xiang and his sister Bao Bao. In honor of his upcoming birthday, can we just take a moment to appreciate some panda?
Last summer, I traveled with a friend to Washington, D.C., to see pandas at the National Zoo. I remember pulling into the parking lot, almost crying because I was so excited that I was about to see a panda for the first time in my life. And when I finally got to see one…
We probably all know that giant pandas are endangered bears native to south-central China. Understandably a flagship and umbrella species for conservation, it’s hard not to love their big adorable faces or those nifty little metacarpal “thumbs” they wield to grip bamboo. Being charismatic megafauna has its perks and its fan base, but there are some common questions out there about pandas. Since I have more pictures I want to share (bwahaha, sorry), I’ll spend time getting answers and showing you more panda pictures!
Are giant pandas related to red pandas?
Nope, not at all. Giant pandas are in the Ursidae family with other bears while red pandas are in the Ailuridae family with…well, no other extant species. The confusion comes from their names. The word “panda” is loosely derived from a Nepalese phrase that means “bamboo eater” or “eater of bamboo.” So…you can guess what both giant pandas and red pandas like to eat. Now I just need a fancy way to title myself “eater of chocolate cake.”
Why are pandas in Order Carnivora if they don’t eat meat?
Pandas in the wild do eat some meat, but it only makes up 1-3% of their diet. Their classification as a “carnivore” came about because Carnivora is a taxonomic group built on phylogeny (as much as possible, classification is an ever-changing world). Truth be told, a number of “carnivores” don’t depend on meat, and some that are not classified in this group eat meat. Genetically and morphologically, pandas are bears who have just become the special little snowflakes of bears. To be fair, technically, a fair number of other bear species don’t specialize on meat either. Sun bears are omnivores who specialize in preying on insect colonies, spectacled bears eat a wide variety of plant material, and black bears will dig into dumpsters and campground coolers before expending energy on hunting (also, they eat a variety of plant materials). Pandas’ ancestors would most likely have included meat in their diet. And don’t be fooled, pandas might not prefer meat, but they still have the chompers of all their former carnivorous glory. So don’t try to hug one.
Why are pandas endangered?
The biggest threat to pandas is habitat loss. They have very specific needs, and they are losing habitat far too fast to adapt to another niche—a sad but common story today (but on the flipside, cockroaches are super adapters. Phooey on climate change, they can survive anything!) Most conservation efforts for pandas today are centered around captive breeding and habit preservation and restoration.
Why do so few zoos in the US house pandas?
All pandas currently housed in the US are a part of a diplomatic loan program with China and are considered Chinese property, even the baby pandas who are born here. Furthermore, the national loan fee for each panda is around $1,000,000 per year per panda. So the short answer: pandas are expensive. Only four zoos in the country are home to pandas (the Smithsonian National Zoo, the San Diego Zoo, Zoo Atlanta, and the Memphis Zoo), and China often sends their own expert keepers to the US for significant panda events, such as births.
How can we help protect pandas?
One of the biggest names in panda conservation is WWF (not the wrestling), and they have partnered with the Chinese government to preserve and restore habitat in China. Probably the easiest ways to help pandas is to support WWF work through donations or volunteering. Another thing, also listed on WWF’s page, is to be aware of what panda tourism options include. It’s probably not feasible for most of us to travel to China to see panda’s in the wild, but for a price, it is most definitely an option. Be sure to research the company beforehand to make sure they are not damaging habitat or disturbing the animals.
And the best thing, really, is to keep learning. And keep exploring!