Despite being few in number, the giant panda is immensely popular with people due in part, no doubt, to its cute and cuddly appearance. They are one of the most beloved and recognized wild creatures that inhabit our planet.
For many years, scientists argued amongst themselves as to whether or not pandas are truly bears. Certainly their physical appearance suggested that they are, yet they shared other traits that seemed to place them in the same family as raccoons. Eventually, however, DNA tests confirmed that they belonged to the family Ursidae, the same as other bears.
Their range in the wild is now mostly limited to the forested mountains of China. This hasn't always been the case. Pandas were once found in the lowlands, but development and habitat destruction has had a severe impact on the animals' survival, pushing them further and further away from civilization.
As true bears, pandas are unique. In general, bears are considered carnivores. Everything about them seems designed for catching and hunting prey. Of course, many bear species also eat berries and fruits, but meat is still a very important part of their diet.
Pandas, however, take it to the extreme, with a diet that consists of 99% bamboo. This means that they are almost exclusively herbivores. They will eat all parts of a bamboo plant- the stem, shoots, and leaves. Because bamboo is very low in nutrition, pandas must eat a lot of it- as much as 40 pounds a day- just to survive.
Sometimes small amounts of meat will be included in their diet; usually in the form of rodents or even deer fawns. But because they are highly specialized animals that rely on bamboo, the destruction of bamboo forests is having a detrimental effect on the world's panda population.
Nobody really knows why pandas are black and white, but no doubt it has to do with natural camouflage in their shadowy forested and often snowy natural habitat.
Surprisingly little is known about their lives in the wild. They have usually been seen as solitary and secretive creatures, yet family groups have also been spotted- and not only during the mating season. This suggests that they not be the loners we once thought they were.
It is estimated that there are only about 1,600 pandas left in the world, both in the wild and in zoos. Even more alarming is the fact that pandas have a low rate of reproduction, and rarely reproduce in captivity. This may be one instance where artificial insemination and/or cloning, despite the controversies surrounding these methods, might be the only way the species can survive.
But no matter what methods of reproduction we try to force on these animals, they are almost certainly doomed unless we also preserve the bamboo forests that pandas depend on for food. While they can eat other vegetation, their digestive systems are specially designed for a bamboo diet, making pandas one of the most highly specialized animals. If we want these unique creatures to continue to exist, we need to find ways to help them, and soon.