A giant panda is what most people think of when they say the word panda. Those big black-and-white bear-looking animals from China. But technically, Ailuropoda melanoleuca ("black and white cat-foot") is the giant panda, and looks nothing like the red panda.

They are found only in the mountains of central China -- in small isolated areas of the north and central portions of the Sichuan/Szechuan Province, in the mountains bordering the southernmost part of Gansu Province, and in the Qinling Mountains of the Shaanxi Province. They only live in damp, dense bamboo and coniferous forests at altitudes of 5,000 to 10,000 feet. Both types of panda have unique front paws (hence the scientific name) -- one of the wrist bones is lengthened and used like a thumb to grasp the bamboo stalks they eat. (This is nearly that all wild giant pandas eat; those in zoos get more variety.) They're not terribly social because more than one or two pandas in the same area would quickly exhaust the food supply; they eat 20 to 40 pounds of food a day each.

Giant pandas have existed since the Pleistocene Era (about 600,000 years ago), when their geographic range extended throughout southern China. Fossil remains also have been found in present-day Burma. Scientists are still carrying on The Giant Panda Debate about whether they are more closely related to raccoons or bears.

Tian Tian (t – YEN t – Yen) is the 3 year old male half of the new pair of Pandas at National Zoological Park, part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C.. Characterized by the Smithsonian magazine 1 as more “like a dog” and “upbeat, mellow, happy to see you, always eager.”

The panda couple are on loan, or rather rental from China at the price of $1,000,000 a year. This money is supposed to fund conservation projects for panda reserves in China.

The panda pair can be seen on the PandaCam. 2

Tian Tian (which means “more and more”) is the larger of the pair and has kidney bean –shaped black patches around his eyes.

Mei Xiang, (may sh - ONG) at 2 years of age is the smaller of the pair and has circular black patches around her eyes. She is characterized by the Smithsonian magazine 1as more “like a cat” who “sometimes expresses interest in you, sometimes not”. Her name, Mei Xiang, means "beautiful fragrance" in Chinese. At least that is the official zoo say on the matter. Apparently there are some semantic arguments over the pronunciation and the meaning depending upon the pronunciation 2

If any offspring are born from this pair they would belong to China although where they would reside may depend on potential genetic diversity needs of future generations because of their endangered status.

1}Smithsonian magazine April 2001

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