When looking at a giant panda, the first thing you will most likely think of is its black and white colour. However, they also have particular adaptations and characteristics that you may not know.
Pandas are medium-sized, black and white bears with black markings around their eyes. They have an extra digit on their front paws, allowing them to tear down thick bamboo. They have large teeth that enable them to bite and chew their food, even though they have a rudimentary digestive system.
Giant pandas are many people’s favourite animals, and although they look cuddly and loveable, they can also be dangerous.
Size and shape
The name giant panda makes you imagine that these animals are large, and although giant compared to red pandas, most people’s first impression is that they are not as big as they imagined them to be.
Males are larger than females but rarely exceed 1.5 meters (5ft) in length, but can weigh up to 150kg (330lb), although they usually weigh up to 110kg (245lb.) Giant pandas are much smaller than brown bears, for example, which can grow up to 2.7m (9ft) and weigh up to 180 kg (400 lb.)
Giant pandas are squat, stocky animals with short legs, square buttocks, a large stomach, and a small tail. They are often seen as peaceful, lovable animals due to their penchant for sleeping, although, as with all bears, they can become quite vicious.
Pandas have a distinct black and cream coat with black markings around their eyes. The coat is dense with hair of medium length and feels greasy rather than woolly. Panda skin excretes excess oil to keep the coat rain-proof, a helpful adaptation against the wet weather it faces almost daily. All giant pandas have the same markings and designs on their coat.
There are many animals with black and white markings, and the panda is not unique. Some animals, such as orcas (killer whales) and zebras, use their marking to camouflage themselves. Orcas use this to their advantage as they have more black on the surface and are more white below, helping to conceal them from their prey.
Zebras use their markings to confuse predators. The black and white bands on their coats can create an illusion for other animals and even stop flies from biting them. When there are many zebras in a herd, the visual effect can be pretty offputting.
However, other black and white animals use their colour not to camouflage themselves but to announce that they are there. Magpies use the colours on their bodies in their mating rituals, and lemurs use their black and white striped tails to communicate.
Other animals use their colours to warn predators away, as with the skunk. The skunk’s black and white markings warn others to stay away from them. An animal that has got too close to a skunk will never forget those colours as a warning.
Likely, the colour of a pandas coat is also used as a warning. Their coats do not camouflage them against the bamboo forests they feed on, and they also stand out against the snow in the high, mountainous regions. Pandas are not social animals, so their colours are not used to communicate with others.
The predators of pandas are few, but they are dangerous. Red dogs, leopards, and bears are their main predators, and the coat is used in the same way skunks are. Giant pandas may look cuddly and loveable, but they can be very dangerous with large, heavy paws and sharp teeth. Their coat is a visual deterrent to other animals to stay away from them.
Giant pandas are called herbivores, but their teeth are different from other herbivores, such as giraffes. They have three incisors, one large canine, and five or six pre-molars and molars, which resemble a carnivore. While pandas can and do eat meat sometimes, the teeth show the ancestry of the giant panda. However, their teeth have been modified over time to eat their favourite food, bamboo.
Their teeth are excellent at eating bamboo, with a large surface to grind rather than slicing, cutting, and tearing seen in most carnivores. A pandas skull is broader, with thicker, heavier bones than other bears to allow it to chew bamboo.
A unique adaptation that the giant panda has is its extra digit on each forepaw. Giant pandas have six ‘fingers,’ which allows them to be extra dextrous when climbing and grasping thick bamboo. This extra digit is opposable, much like our thumbs, allowing them to hold items.
While other animals have lost their digits over time, giant pandas evolved the extra bone from the wrist. There is also another bone on the opposite side of the wrist called the pisiform, which may be able to act as the seventh digit.
Although the black markings around the giant pandas’ eyes make them look big, they are pretty small. Giant pandas have a pupil that has a vertical slit. This allows them to contract further than circular pupils, keeping more sunlight out in bright conditions and allowing them to see better in their habitats. Giant pandas can be found in bright snow, where the pupils will keep the glare out, and in extremely sunny conditions. The shape of the pupil also helps them see at night, allowing them to find food at any time of the day.
The giant panda’s digestive system is simple compared to most other herbivores that feed on similar food. While other animals have a long alimentary tract and multi-chambered stomach, the giant panda doesn’t. Pandas have a single-chamber stomach like ourselves, and the mucous membrane lining of the stomach allows them to eat the rough-cut bamboo.
The intestines are about five times the length of a panda’s body, much shorter than a cow, about 20 times their body length.
Although giant pandas are not social animals, scent-marking is a standard feature. They have a small gland on their anus that secrete a vinegar-smelling liquid. The small tail covers the glands that they possess. They lift their tail to allow them to mark their scent, rubbing it on trees and other natural markers.