o The Frog Blog: Biology Prize Entries 2011 - The Giant Panda

Saturday, 12 March 2011

Biology Prize Entries 2011 - The Giant Panda


Ailuropoda melanoleuca, or literally "cat-foot black-and-white" is part of order Carnivora, but is the only one in the order that is a vegetarian. It is actually a member of Familia Procyonidae (raccoons and ringtails) but is being considered for Ursidae, which it is mistakenly thought to be part of by most. Descendant of the pygmy panda, a similar but smaller animal which lived around two million years ago.

The Panda's diet consists of 99% bamboo, and evolution has aided them in developing “thumbs” with which to hold the stalks. This almost pure plant diet is odd, as it still has the digestive system of a meat eater, so it cant digest cellulose well, and so has to eat huge amounts of bamboo each day (9-14kg) to get the required nutrients. The Giant Panda may eat other foods such as honey, eggs, fish, yams, shrub, leaves, oranges, and bananas when available.

Giant Pandas are descendants of the Pygmy Panda, which from fossils we can tell had a purely bamboo diet, and were only 1 metre long. Pandas are known as a living fossil due to this extremely similar relative. Pandas live in the mountains of China, mainly in the Si Chuan Province. They used to live on plains and forests all over China, but over population and de-foresting has led to destruction of habitat. In 2006, scientists underestimated wild population at around 1000 but a recent DNA analysis of droppings say that there may be as many as 3000. Although endangered, conservation efforts are thought to be working and out of the 40 Panda reserves, 27 are new in the past two decades.

Pandas were only known to mate naturally in the wild. Artificial insemination was the only method used in captivity, males had lost all will to mate, so male Pandas have been given drugs similar to viagra and videos of pandas mating to encourage them (Seriously!)

Experimentation with black bear mating programs has brought some success. The current reproductive rate is considered 1 baby every 2 years. Pandas sexually mature between the age of 4-8 and remain sexually active until about 20 years of age. A female’s oestrous cycle only lasts 3 days and only occurs once a year, which causes problems as the low density of their population makes it hard to find a mate. A baby panda weighs 90-130 grams, 1/900th of the mother's weight.

Robbie Hollis, Form VI.

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