December 18, 2009

First Panda-monium in U.S. – 1936

On this day in 1936, the first giant panda cub to reach the U.S. alive was brought fro
m China by a young socialite named Ruth Harkness.

It was a “he,” but people thought it was a “she” and named it Su-Lin after the sister-in-law of a Chinese-American wildlife explore
r, Quentin Young, who helped Ms. Harkness in her travels.

You might picture Ms. Harkness, who decided to bring a panda to the U.S. because her husband had had this goal but died as he was attempting it, returning to the U.S. with the panda in a cage. Or possibly on a leash. But instead, she brought it in her arms like a child!

The panda caused a huge sensation in the newspapers, and celebrities such as Shirley Temple came to see the creature.

Today pandas are still rare enough in zoos
that often long lines form when they are shown; millions of visitors go to each panda exhibit in the U.S. per year, and gift shops of zoos lucky enough to display pandas are stuffed with all sorts of panda paraphernalia.

Picky and Endangered

Pandas are large, black-
and-white animals in the bear family. They live in the bamboo forests of China and Tibet, and they eat bamboo almost exclusively.

Most species of bamboo flower only once in a while, and flower and fruit together, en masse. That means that every 60 to 130 years (depending on the species), all the bamboo plants in a forest flower, produce seeds, and die. Since it takes a while for the seeds to sprout and grow into plants mature enough to eat, the panda population falls drastically when this happens.

(Pandas can, and sometimes do, eat honey, eggs, fish, yams, shrub leaves, small mammals, oranges, and bananas as well as bamboo. But they usually survive the die-off of a particular kind of bamboo by switching to another bamboo forest with a different variety of bamboo.)

The panda's “picky” diet is one reason that it is endangered. Aside from the periodic die-off of bamboo, the forests are getting smaller and smaller because of human farming and settlements.

The Chinese government makes efforts (some would say not enough) to protect the pandas from extinction.

Teeny to Giant

When they are born, baby pandas are only one-nine-hundredth of their mothers' weight!

A panda newborn is pink, furless, blind, and not much more than a quarter of a pound (90-130 grams). (This is about the size of a single stick of butter!) When they grow up, pandas tip the scales at 275 to 330 pounds (125 to 150 kg).

Although panda mothers often have two cubs per litter, they only have the time and energy to raise one baby at a time (in general), and even that one baby, small as it is, is difficult to fully protect. Furthermore, pandas in captivity aren't too interested in mating. These reproductive difficulties are another reason for the panda's inclusion on the list of endangered species.
Estimates of the worldwide panda population are from 1,500 to 3,000 or so.

Learn more about pandas here.

How about a virtual visit to a panda in a zoo? San Diego Zoo has a pandacam with live streaming footage, video and photo galleries, and pandacam time lapse videos. Fascinating! Check out the panda cub (I watched the 16th checkup) to see how pinkish the “white” portion of the fur is in the young!

Make an origami panda.

Color this “P is for Panda” picture.

Do panda puzzles!

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