Giant pandas are found only in the mountains of central China-in small isolated areas of the north and central portions of the Sichuan Province, in the mountains bordering the southernmost part of Gansu Province, and tin the Qinling Mountains of the Shaanxi Province.
Giant pandas live in dense bamboo and coniferous forests at altitudes of 5,000 to 10,000 feet. The mountains are shrouded in heavy clouds with torrential rains or dense mist throughout the year.
Ancestors of the giant panda existed in the mid-Miocene Era (about 3 million years ago), when their geographic range extended throughout southern China. Fossil remains also have been found in present-day Burma and Vietnam.
Giant pandas are bear-like in shape with striking black and white markings. The ears, eye patches, legs, and shoulder band are black; the rest of the body is whitish. They have a thick, woolly coat to insulate them from the cold. Adults are 4 to 6 feet long and may weigh up to 350 pounds-about the same size as the American black bear. However, unlike the black bear, giant pandas to not hibernate and cannot walk on their hind legs.
The giant panda has unique front paws-one of the wrist bones is enlarged and elongated and is used like a thumb, enabling the giant panda to grasp stalks of bamboo. They also have very powerful jaws and teeth to rush bamboo. While bamboo stalks and roots make up and 95 percent of its diet, the giant panda also feeds on gentians, irises, crocuses, fish and occasionally small rodents. It must eat 20 to 40 pounds of food each day to survive, and spends 20 to 16 hours a day feeding.
The giant panda reaches breeding maturity between 4 and 10 years of age. Mating usually takes place in the spring, and 3 to 5 months later, one or two cubs weighing 3 to 5 ounces each is born in a sheltered den. Usually only one cub survives. The eyes open at 1-1/2 to 2 months and the cub becomes mobile at approximately 3 months of age. At 12 months the cub becomes totally independent. While their average lifespan in the wild is abut 15 years, giant pandas in captivity have been know to live into their 20s.
Scientists have debated for more than a century whether giant pandas belong to the bear family, the raccoon family, or a separate family of their own. This is because the giant panda and its cousin, the lesser or red panda, share many characteristics with both bears and raccoons, Recent DNA analysis indicates that giant pandas are more closely related to bears and red pandas are more closely related to raccoons.