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Giant Panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca) Fact Sheet: Taxonomy & History

Taxonomic History & Nomenclature

Common names

  • English common names
    • Giant panda
    • Panda bear
    • Parti-colored bear
  • Chinese common names
    • Baixiong meaning "white bear"
    • Zhuxiong meaning "bamboo bear"
    • Daxiong mao meaning "large bear-cat"

Taxonomic history

  • Formerly placed within the Procyonidae (family) (Binida-Emonds 2004)
    • Ailurus (red or lesser panda) likely remains within this family
    • Similarities of red and giant pandas
      • Tooth structure
      • Skull structure
      • Genitalia
      • Scent-glands and marking behavior
      • Karyotype (chromosome number) of giant pandas more similar to that of red pandas than to the ursine bears, according to some studies
    • Current placement reflects common ancestry with bears (Binida-Emonds 2004)
      • Giant panda chromosomes are the result of fusion, thus their original (un-fused) number closer to that of bears than to red pandas
      • Molecular studies show the giant panda shares an ancestor with all modern ursids (O'Brien 1985; O' Brien 1989)

Taxonomic distinctions

  • Currently recognized as one species with genetic differences (Swaisgood et al. 2016)
    • Qinling Mountains population is a distinct genetic cluster
      • Diverged about 0.3 mya
  • Some have proposed two subspecies (from Lu et al. 2008; Wan et al. 2005); controversial, not widely accepted (Swaisgood et al. 2016)
    • Experts disagree on designation
      • A. m. quinlingensis proposed for pandas in the Quinling Mountain range of Shaanxi Province, China
      • A. m. melanoleuca proposed for the Sichuan Province, China
    • Designations based on teeth, skull morphology, and fur color

Evolutionary History

Carnivore diversity and evolution

  • Divided into two major clades
    • Feliformes or the cat-like carnivores
    • Caniformes or the dog-like carnivores
      • Includes a diverse group of animals from skunks (Mephitidae) to dogs (Canidae) to bears (Ursidae)

Fossil records

  • Several fossil species of small cat-sized bears (Ursavus spp) (from Hunt 2004; Jin et al. 2007)
    • Lived until 7-8 million years ago (Miocene)
    • Fossils found in Europe, North America and China
  • Genus Ailuropoda (from Ciochon 2009; Jin et al. 2007)
    • Ailuropoda microta fossils date to 1.9 million years ago
      • Dentition and skull morphology of the fossil indicated the animal was adapted to a diet of bamboo
        • Back of skull broad for anchoring powerful chewing muscles
        • Cheek teeth enlarged
        • Skull bones thickened
        • Teeth and skulls less specialized for a bamboo diet than those of modern pandas (Figueirido et al. 2011)
      • Remains found at Longgupo cave in China near Yangtze River
        • Site included some 92 associated mammal fossils including extinct great apes, the ancestors of orangutans (Pongo), fossil horses, and the elephant-like Sinomastodon
    • More recent fossil panda remains
      • A. baconi, from the Pleistocene (from Jin et al. 2007)
        • Discovered in cave deposits of southeast Asia
        • Slightly larger in size than the modern giant panda

Family Ursidae

  • Diversity
    • Includes 5 genera
      • Ursus
        • American and Asian black bears, grizzly (brown) bear, and polar bear
      • Ailuropoda
        • Giant Panda
      • Helarctos
        • Sun bear
      • Melursus
        • Sloth bear
      • Tremarctos
        • Spectacled bear

Giant panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca)

  • Last surviving member of the genus
  • Genetic characteristics (from Li et al. 2010)
    • Genome sequences reveal that the modern panda has lost the ability to taste protein
      • This represents a recent adaptation to a plant based diet
    • Genetic variability high (Zhang et al. 2007a)
      • Despite significantly restricted distribution of modern pandas compared to prehistoric geographic presence (Jin et al. 2007)

Cultural History

Archaeological excavations

  • Panda remains in tomb date to c. 4,000 years old (from Archaeology News 2005)
    • Tomb located in central China
    • Contained a giant panda skeleton and human remains
  • Other neolithic sites suggest hunting of pandas by humans (Wu & Zhou 2005)
  • Pandas "prized" in early Chinese history
    • Panda skull found in royal tomb of Empress Dowager Bo (179 - 163 BC) (Catton 1990)
    • Emperor of Han Dynasty (206 BC - AD 24) kept rare animals, including the giant panda, in his garden

Early reference to pandas

  • Qin dynasty (221-207 BCE)
    • Panda described in an early dictionary
    • A mo is described with short limbs and black and white markings (Catton 1990)
      • The animal purportedly ate iron, copper, and bamboo stems (Catton 1990)

Traditional Tibetan mythology

  • Tale (of unknown origin) details the origins of panda marking (from Angel 1998)
    • Pandas were originally all white in color and acquired their characteristic color following the death of their friend, a young shepherdess
      • A leopard kills the young girl as she tries to defend the pandas from attack
      • At the funeral, following local custom, the pandas cover their arms with ashes
      • The pandas then wipe tears from their eyes with ashy paws and cover their ears from mourners' cries
      • Finally, the grief-stricken pandas hug one another, leaving black smudges on other parts of their bodies

"Discovery" by the western world

  • First described by Pere Armand David in 1869 (Catton 1990)
    • A Christian missionary and naturalist
    • David sent specimens to the director of the Museum d'Histoire Naturelle, Paris (Milne-Edwards 1870)
      • David's "Ursus melanoleucus" changed to Ailuropoda melanoleuca (a new genus) because of similarities to the lesser panda Ailurus fulgens.

Popular culture references

  • Documentary appearances
    • Planet Earth: Mountains - 2007, BBC
      • Episode 2, Mountains, features the giant panda attempting to hibernate while another nurses her week-old cub in a mountain cave in China
    • Panda Tales - 2008, PBS
      • This DVD features the life of Zhen Zhen's first year of life at the San Diego Zoo.
    •  Wild China: Land of the Panda - 2008, BBC
      • Shows the relationship between the Chinese and the environment
    • Bears: Spy in the Woods - 2008, BBC
      • Narrator David Attenborough documents many species of bear, including the giant panda, in this hour long program
    • Pandas: The Journey Home - 2015, National Geographic
      • The film follows the Wolong Panda Center in China. After decades of its managed breeding program, the center is tackling the challenge of reintroducing breeding populations to the wild
  • Other appearances
    • Giant panda clip - 2008, BBC
      • 4 minute clip of a giant panda doing handstands in the forest. Featured from BBC Earth's Bears: Spy in the Woods
    • Giant Panda Reserve -2009, National Geographic
      • The Wolong Nature Reserve in China is attempting to bring the panda population back from the verge of extinction in this 3 minute clip
  • Children's Books
    • Giant Pandas - Gibbons, 2004
  • Research/Memoirs
    • A Chance for Lasting Survival: Ecology and Behavior of Wild Giant Pandas - Wenshi, Mcshea, Garshelis, & Dajun, 2014
    • Giant Pandas: Biology, Veterinary Medicine and Management - Wildt, Zhang, Zhang, Janssen, & Ellis, 2012
    • Giant Pandas - Seidensticker & Lumpkin, 2007
    • The Last Panda - George Schaller, 1993


Describer (Date): David, 1869

Kingdom: Animal

Phylum: Chordata

Class: Mammalia

Order: Carnivora (15 families)

Family: Ursidae (Bears)

Genus: Ailuropoda (Milne-Edwards, 1870)

Species: Ailuropoda melanoleuca (David, 1869)

Classification according to ITIS (2010)


Giant Panda in Chinese

The Chinese characters for Giant Panda translate to "large bear cat".

Page Citations

Binda-Emonds (2004)
Catton (1990)
Figueirido et al. (2011)
Hunt (2004)
ITIS (2010)
Jin et al. (2007)
Lu et al. (2008)
O' Brien (1985)
O'Brien (1989)
Ryder (1987)
Wan et al. (2005)
Wu & Zhou (2005)
Zang et al. (2007a)

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