The Story of the Black & White “Living Fossil”

Authors: Go Chengdu

2020-01-02

The globally famous giant panda, China’s national treasure, has a cute look with a chubby body, black and white fur and dark circles around its eyes, making itself the most loved animal in the world.
In China, the giant panda gets a nickname of "Gungun" (which means somersaulting in Chinese) because it likes somersaulting on the ground. Well, as so many people are obsessed with "Gungun", let's talk about this black and white bear.
The biological evolution of "Gungun"
Deemed as the "living fossil", the gaint panda has its origin dating back to 8 million years ago, when it was called ailuaractos lufengensis, the earliest ancestor of the modern panda. Ailuaractos lufengensis evolved from quasi bears, looking like a fat fox and eating meat as the staples.
Ailuaractos lufengensis generally lived in central and southern parts of the current China and continued its evolution. One species among the classification, called ailuropoda microta, appeared about 3 million years ago with the size half of the modern giant panda, looking like a fat dog. Experts estimated, based on the evidence by the fossils of its teeth, that the species had evolved into an omnivorous animal eating bamboo. It got used to living in bamboo forests in sub-tropical areas and became bigger in size, entering the peak time of the species about 500,000 to 700,000 years ago.
Who discovered the giant panda?
Chinese people have long known the existence of the giant panda, which was recorded in legends and literature as early as over two thousand years ago. However, the official recognition and classification of the animal was about 150 years ago.
In March, 1869, French botanist and zoologist Armand David found the trace of what local people called "white bear" or "spotted bear" during his scientific exploration in Baoxing County in southwestern China's Sichuan Province. With the help of local hunters, Armand collected a complete sample of the "white bear" on Apr.1 — an animal similar to bear with white and black fur and hairy soles. That was a strange creature he had never seen before.
So Armand sent the sample to France for further identification. Being identified by Alphonse Milne-Edwards, scientist of Muséum national d'histoire naturelle (National Museum of Natural History), the "white and black bear" was defined as a new species and named "panda". Hence, the giant panda entered human's vision. It happens that the year of 2019 is the 150th anniversary of the "discovery" of the species. People add "giant" before panda in order to distinguish it from the red panda, another animal similar to raccoon.
About the life of "Gungun"
The major habitat of giant pandas is located in mountainous areas around China's Sichuan Basin in Sichuan Province and Qinling Mountains in the south of Shaanxi Province. As a result of habitat loss and human's hunting, "Gungun" became an endangered species and its number slumped. Realizing the importance and urgency of protecting giant pandas, China has devoted a lot of human resources and capital to the conservation and research of the species, such as wild giant panda rescue, habitat protection and artificial captivity, contributing to great recovery of the endangered species.
According to incomplete statistics, the number of wild pandas reached about 2,000 globally by the end of 2016; and by the end of 2019, the number of global captive pandas is 600. A positive signal of the protection of the species is that the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reclassified giant panda from "endangered" to "vulnerable" at the end of 2016.
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