Baby panda Su Lin resting up in a tree's branches

Precious pandas

A young giant panda cub looks into the camera

These bears are black and white and loved all over. The giant panda is a national treasure in China, but the rest of the world really likes them, too! With their black-and-white coat and roly-poly shape, giant pandas are one of the most easily recognizable animals. Scientists aren't sure why the bears look the way they do. It could be that the black-and-white patches help them stand out in the forest so the bears can find each other to mate. Another idea is that the broad blockings of contrasting color may serve to camouflage the panda in the bamboo or treetops. Each panda’s markings are slightly different from one another.

Adult giant panda holding bamboo

Bear with us

For years scientists wondered whether pandas were bears, raccoons, or in a group all their own. By studying the genetic code (DNA) in pandas’ cells, scientists have confirmed the panda's relationship with bears. Giant pandas are similar to other bears in how their skull and body are shaped, and the way they walk and climb. It's important to know that pandas are bears, because the better we understand them, the more we can help them reproduce and survive.

Newborn panda cub held by a vet wearing rubber gloves gets a checkup

Start small

Given their size (adult males can weigh over 300 pounds!), it's hard to believe that giant pandas are only about the size of a stick of butter at birth, and they're hairless and helpless. The panda mother gives great care to her tiny cub, usually cradling it in one paw and holding it close to her chest. For several days after birth, the mother does not leave the den, not even to eat or drink!

Baby panda Su Lin examines an enrichment puzzle filled with fruit rewards

Bamboo bears

Giant pandas are grouped with carnivores, but they have adapted to live mostly on bamboo. They will eat small mammals if they can catch them, though! And like other types of bears, giant pandas are curious and playful, especially when they’re young. In zoos, they like to play with enrichment items like piles of ice or sawdust, puzzles made of bamboo with food inside, and different scents like spices. Giant pandas have unusually thick and heavy bones for their size, but they are also very flexible and like to do somersaults.

One thing that might surprise you about pandas is how they sound! They seem pretty quiet, but giant pandas can bleat, roar, growl, and honk! When you come visit our pandas at the San Diego Zoo, keep your ears open and see what you can hear!