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Giant Panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) Fact Sheet: Physical Characteristics

Physical Characteristics

Data from (Reid & Gong 1999)

Weight 85-125 kg (187-276 lb) 70-100 kg (154-220 lb)
Body Length 160-190 cm (5.3-6.2 ft) 160-190 cm (5.3-6.2 ft)
Tail Length 10-15 cm (4-6 in) 10-15 cm (4-6 in)

General Appearance

Body shape

  • Stocky, barrel-shaped body (Reid & Gong 1999)
  • Head (from Chorn & Hoffmann 1978; Edwards et al. 2006 unless otherwise noted)
    • Large (Reid & Gong 1999)
    • Wide, flaring cheek bones (zygomatic arches)
    • Robust chewing muscles
    • Pronounced sagittal crest down the midline of the skull
  • Legs
    • Shorter than that of most bears (Reid & Gong 1999)
    • Forequarters more massive than hindquarters (Reid and Gong 1999)
      • Structure enables the animal to lift its heavy body into trees
  • Feet
    • Hind-feet not completely "flat-footed" (plantigrade); lack heel pad
    • Unique front-feet have five digits plus an opposable "thumb"
      • "Thumb" is an enlarged wrist bone with attached muscles for grasping and orienting bamboo stems
  • Tail
    • Short
    • Scent glands located on underside
  • Paws
    • "Pseudo-thumb" for processing bamboo (Swaisgood et al. 2016)


  • Coloration striking for a mammal
    • Pattern blends well in a snowy landscape and in the forest
    • May also serve as a warning signal to other pandas (Schaller 1994)
  • Overall white and black
    • Brown and white coloration has been rarely observed
    • Body white
    • Black patchces souround the eyes
    • Ears and legs black
      • Color of legs extends, in a band, across shoulders and sometimes tip of tail
  • Hair
    • Short, thick wooly coat
      • Provides excellent insulation; animals can comfortably sleep on snow
      • Slightly oily fur prevents water penetration in a damp habitat
    • 5-8 cm (2-3 in) long on the shoulders
      • Shorter on the back, c.2.5-5 cm (1-2 in) in length
    • Hair on head or neck can not be raised (to intimidate potential aggressors)

Sexual Dimorphism

Males larger than females (from Schaller et al. 1985)

  • Males c. 18% heavier than females
  • Dimorphism much less pronounced than in other bears
    • In polar bears, males c. 36% heavier than females
    • In grizzly bears, males up to 38% heavier than females

Male genitals

  • Small and pointed to rear
    • More similar to red panda than to other bears

Other Characteristics

Vision and Smell

  • Poor visual acuity
    • Pupil has vertical slit like domestic cats (found in many nocturnal animals)
  • Acute sense of smell

Hearing (Owen et al. 2016a)

  • Functional hearing range: 0.10 kHz (lower limit) to 70.0 kHz (upper limit)
    • Good sensitivity: 10.0-16.0 kHz
    • Best sensitivity: 12.5-14.0 kHz
  • Can hear into the ultrasonic range (a trait which may be an ancestral trait among mammals)
  • Increases in ambient noise may mask acoustic signals, which potentially could impact reproductive success

Digestive specializations

  • Unusual gut for an animal that eats only plants (Loeffler et al. 2006)
    • Length much shorter than is expected
      • Total length only 4 times the length of the body
        • Length more similar to that of meat-eating carnivores
      • Guts 10 to 22 times body length seen in other exclusive plant eaters such as deer
  • Digestion considered unspecialized (Loeffler et al. 2006)
    • Stomach simple
    • No foregut fermentation
    • No caecum thus no hindgut fermentation
    • Recent genome sequencing detects no digestive enzymes specifically for plant cellulose (Li et al. 2010)
  • Microbes aid bamboo digestion (e.g., Zhu et al. 2011)


  • 2nd and 3rd premolars well developed (from Chorn & Hoffmann 1978; Edwards et al. 2006)
    • Unlike the pattern seen in other bears
  • Molars
    • Broad and flat with extra cusps (from Chorn & Hoffmann 1978; Edwards et al. 2006)
      • Similar to extinct plant-eating European cave bears
  • Carnassial teeth (upper 4th premolar/lower 1st molar)
    • Teeth with reduced slicing capacity compared to most other carnivores (Hunt 2004)

Striking Black and White Coloration

Giant Panda "Bai Yun" at San Diego Zoo

Giant panda 'Bai Yun' at the San Diego Zoo.

Image credit: © San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. All rights reserved.

Page Citations

Chorn & Hoffmann (1978)
Edwards et al. (2006)
Li et al. (2010)
Loeffler et al. (2006)
O'Brien (1985)
Pan & Lü (1993)
Reid & Gong (1999)
Schaller (1994)
Schaller et al. (1985)

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