March 16th is National Panda Day! What is Panda Day? It’s a day to celebrate pandas of course! What’s a day? It’s a 24 hour cycle in which the earth completes a rotation around the sun. What’s a panda? GLAD YOU ASKED!
Pandas are large black and white mammals native to China. They’re often given the name “giant panda”, to differentiate them from another mammal called the red panda. The two animals are not closely related, although this wasn’t always believed to be the case. The panda’s place in the mammalian family tree was a mystery for a long time, due to sharing characteristics with both bears and raccoons. For a while, red pandas and giant pandas were grouped into their own family, until DNA studies revealed that the red panda is a kind of “living fossil” with no close relatives, while the giant panda is basically just a funny colored bear.
|Giant Panda||Red Panda|
That’s right! it was once thought that the term “panda bear” was incorrect, and only used because the animal was fluffy and teddy bear-like (much like the “koala bear” which is actually a marsupial). But it turns out the term “panda bear” has been right all along: pandas are members of the Ursidae family, just like grizzly bears, black bears, moon bears and polar bears. Koalas, meanwhile, get to be “living fossils”, just like the red panda (also not a bear). Panda bears are thought to have separated from the main bear lineage almost 20 million years ago, making them the most primitive species of bear living today.
|Black Bear||Polar Bear||Grizzly Bear|
The most well-known feature of the panda is its striking black and white fur. However, not all pandas feature this iconic coloration. The Qinling panda, a subspecies named after the Qinling Mountains it calls home, features the same basic pattern as other pandas, but replaces the black areas with dark brown, and the white areas with light brown. This group separated from the other species of panda around 300,000 years ago. While it is estimated that around 3,000 pandas are currently living in the wild, the Qingling pandas are far rarer, believed to number no more than 300.
|Panda Bear||Panda Baby|
Though their cuddly appearance and slow, lazy demeanor have given them a reputation for being big softies, pandas are wild animals and should be treated with caution and respect like any other wild creature. Though not usually aggressive, pandas have been known to bite when bothered, so it’s probably best to let them do their panda thing and much on bamboo from a safe distance.
|Panda TOOB Figures|
Now that you’re armed with some panda factoids, it’s time to go out there and spread the word about National Panda Day!
Bernie’s Bonus Fun Fact: The Chinese name for the panda - dà xióng māo - actually means “big bear cat”. Though they aren’t very cat-like, the name originated from a time when the giant panda was still thought to be related to the red panda (called xióngmāo or “bear cat” in Chinese), which more closely resembles a feline.