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13 Unique Characteristics of Giant Pandas

Giant pandas are members of the bear family. Their scientific name is Ailuropoda melanoleuca, meaning “black and white cat-foot.” Giant pandas are only found in Central China and are very special to the country. These mammals have several characteristics that make them special. Characteristics are distinct features of an animal that make it unique.

This article discusses thirteen characteristics of giant pandas.

13 Characteristics of Giant Pandas

1. Barrel-Shaped Body

Giant panda walking
Giant panda walking | image by Greg Goebel via Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Giant pandas have stocky, barrel-shaped bodies like most other bear species, and most of their weight is carried in the body. Adult female giant pandas can weigh as little as 150 pounds, but an adult male giant panda can weigh as much as 350 pounds.

2. Black and White Fur

Perhaps the most distinct and recognizable characteristic of giant pandas is their black and white fur. Giant pandas are known for having white bodies with a band of black fur around the middle, as well as black fur on the arms, legs, ears, muzzle, and around the eyes.

3. Round Ears

Giant panda on a log
Giant panda on a log | image by Mogami Kariya via Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Giant pandas have small, round ears that protrude from the top of their large, round heads. The ears provide a good sense of hearing for the giant panda, but since they don’t have many predators and do not hunt animals for food, they don’t use their good sense of hearing very often.

4. Skin That Matches The Fur

One unique characteristic of giant pandas is that their skin matches their fur. If you shaved a giant panda, you would find that its skin was white where the white fur had been and black where the black fur had been.

5. Dense Fur

Giant panda resting on rock
Giant panda resting on rock | image by Benson Kua via Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Giant pandas look very fluffy because they have extremely thick and dense fur. Since giant pandas spend much of the year high in the cold mountains of Central China, they need this dense fur to hold in warmth.

6. Pseudo-Thumb

Giant pandas have a special bone that sticks out from the wrist. This radial sesamoid bone is called a pseudo-thumb. Giant pandas use this “thumb” as an active manipulator, meaning they use their opposable thumb to hold a shoot of bamboo between the bone and the palm.

7. Short Tails

Giant panda crossing on log
Giant panda crossing on log | image by gill_penney via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Like most bears, giant pandas have short tails. The giant panda’s tail measures between 4 and 6 inches in length. This tail is pretty short in comparison to the giant panda’s body.

In fact, the short tail is about 1/10th of the length of the giant panda’s body.

8. Vertical Slit in Pupils

Unlike other bears, which have circular pupils, giant pandas have pupils with vertical slits. This helps prevent sunlight from getting into their eyes so they can see better, especially when the sun is reflecting off the snow. It also helps them see better at night.

9. Strong Jaw Muscles

Giant panda eating bamboo
Giant panda eating bamboo | image by Mertie . via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Giant pandas have very strong jaw muscles. Their jaw muscles are actually stronger than most other bear species. This allows them to chew fibrous bamboo for long periods of time.

And, though they are mostly peaceful animals, their strong jaw muscles can deliver a nasty bite when they have to defend themselves.

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10. Unique Diet

Though the giant panda’s digestive system and teeth are consistent with a carnivore, they are primarily herbivorous. Though the giant panda eats bulbs, grass, insects, and fruit, its primary food source is bamboo. An adult giant panda needs up to 83 pounds of food each day, so they spend up to 14 hours munching on bamboo and other food daily.

11. Self-Regenerating Teeth

Giant panda eating bamboo stick
Giant panda eating bamboo stick | image by David Schroeter via Flickr | CC BY-ND 2.0

Another unique characteristic of giant pandas is the fact that their teeth are self-regenerating. Chewing bamboo all day can do a number on their teeth, but giant pandas can regenerate their enamel at a microscopic and nanoscopic level.

For comparison, human teeth can recover from enamel loss to a certain extent, but if we break or chip a tooth, a dentist is needed to fix it. A giant panda can regenerate a tooth if it is broken or chipped.

12. Small Fertility Window

Unlike many other mammals, female giant pandas only ovulate once per year. The fertile period only lasts two to three days, so the window each year that a female giant panda can get pregnant is very small.

This small fertility window is one of the reasons that the world’s giant panda population is getting smaller, leading to their placement on the endangered species list.

13.  Small Offspring

Giant panda cubs
Giant panda cubs | image by gill_penney via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Giant pandas have very small offspring compared to the size of an adult. Newborn giant pandas are born pink and are extremely small, measuring around 15 cm.  This size is mainly due to the giant panda’s diet.

Bamboo is not very nutritious, so the giant pandas do not get enough nutrients from the food to grow large babies. Giant panda babies are also born blind, resembling rodent offspring more than bear offspring. Unfortunately, their small size makes them very susceptible to disease, and many are killed when their mothers accidentally crush them.