Are Pandas Bears?
It seems like an obvious question: Are pandas bears? They are called panda bears after all. But really, it’s anything but a stupid question, because as far as bears go, pandas are rather…weird. And I’m not just talking about their world-famous black and white patterns. Pandas are just about the least bear-like bears on earth.
How Can You Not Love That Panda Face?
Living in the mountainous forests of south-central China, the panda has the same general body shape as other bears, but that’s about where the similarities end. There’s the obvious black and white pattern (believed to act as camouflage in the snowy, sun-dappled forests of its home) to help set it apart, but there’s also a very strange appendage on each of its front paws.
It looks like a thumb, but it’s not. Pandas have one, two, three, four, five…six fingers? Well, not exactly. The sixth “digit” is actually a modified sesamoid bone, but it acts more or less like a thumb—perfect for holding onto a panda’s preferred food: bamboo.
Unlike all the other bears, which are omnivorous and eat both meat and plants, pandas are almost exclusively herbivorous, munching on bamboo day in and day out. Though they have very occasionally been seen eating small animals, the vast majority of a panda’s diet comes from bamboo. That is, in a word, not very bear-like.
Actually, pandas are one of the only members of the order Carnivora, including cats, dogs, bears, etc., that don’t really eat meat. But, as I said off the top, pandas are bears. And, since bears are carnivores, that makes a panda’s bambooivore diet a bit of a problem.
Despite eating so much bamboo, a panda’s digestive system is really, really bad at digesting the stuff. That means they get very little energy or protein from their diet. But don’t worry, pandas have a solution: Since they can’t get quality, they go for quantity.
To make up for bamboo’s lack of nutrition, pandas eat a lot of it. A lot a lot of it. As in, up to 84 pounds a day. Setting up in their recognizable relaxed sitting posture, pandas put those unique “thumbs” to work to grasp and eat bamboo shoots. But even with those handy-dandy sixth digits, they still have to sit and eat for up to 12 hours a day just to get enough nutrition.
And yes, that much eating means a lot of pooping. Up to 40 times a day. (I just knew you were going to ask).
A Panda’s a Panda, Except When It’s Not
Yet, despite their unique look and their bizarre, nigh-inexplicable diet, pandas are still bears. However, in a strange twist of nomenclature, their neighbor, the red panda, isn’t. Red pandas may have similar markings on their face, and people did indeed believe they were small bears for many years, but recent studies have revealed that they aren’t actually closely related to bears.
Rather, red pandas are most closely related to weasels, skunks, and raccoons. The aesthetic similarities between them and regular pandas (often called giant pandas to distinguish the two) are a coincidence. Got that? Pandas are bears…except for the pandas that aren’t.