Hailing from China, the giant panda first captured the hearts of Westerners in 1869 after Pere Armand David -- a French missionary -- first described the black and white critter to contemporaries in Europe. In 1972 the Chinese government gave a giant panda to the United States after First Lady Pat Nixon commented during a presidential visit to China how much she liked the bears. Since then U.S. scientists have studied the species.
More commonly known as the bear family, critters categorized in this scientific family have five toes on each foot, according to the Panda Classroom at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park. The giant panda bear has five toes. The ability to walk upright for short distances is also a bear qualification that the giant panda meets.
Not Based On Eating Habits
Pandas are not meat eaters or carnivores as are many other types of bears. They eat bamboo primarily. This quirk makes for one of the unique exceptions made in the scientific classification system, placing bears under the order Carnivora, according to the Smithsonian National Zoological Park. However, the scientific requirement to be a carnivore has more to do with the structure of teeth rather than what the critter chooses to chew with those teeth, according to the University of California at Santa Barbara. Carnivores must have well-developed teeth capable of shredding foods. The giant panda again meets this qualification. Interestingly enough, although giant pandas prefer bamboo, according to Panda International, they will eat fish, flowers and small animals.
Once Considered A Racoon
As the Smithsonian National Zoological Park notes, the classification of the giant panda has been a topic of debate for many years among the scientists responsible for making such decisions. Up until more advanced DNA testing confirmed a closer genetic relationship to bears, scientists grouped giant pandas with racoons because of their long wrist bones that allow the panda to hold plants.
Why Does It Matter?
This species is endangered. As of 2012, there were approximately 1,600 pandas worldwide -- including those in zoos and breeding programs. The giant panda has an extremely low reproductive rate. This coupled with the disappearance of bamboo -- its more preferred food source -- keeps this species in jeopardy. It's why the San Diego Zoo believes its categorization as a bear is important: It gives scientists a better understanding of this critter.
Amy M. Armstrong is a former community news journalist with more than 15 years of experience writing features and covering school districts. She has received more than 40 awards for excellence in journalism and photography. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in communications from Washington State University. Armstrong grew up on a dairy farm in western Washington and wrote agricultural news while in college.