Are pandas bears?

Giant Panda, Red Panda -

Are pandas bears?

Do you have many questions about pandas? Are pandas bears or marsupials? Are they dangerous?

We Love Panda is THE site for panda lovers. Our team of addicted pandas have come together to answer these questions in detail.

Yes! Pandas are bears 🐻! One could believe that this great bear, is not part of the Ursidae family (bear) and put it with the marsupials (koala, kangaroo). Indeed, while bear cubs are small, giant pandas are even smaller. This characteristic can occur in monotremes and marsupials. Marsupials give birth to babies that finish their growth in the mother's pouch. But despite that, the giant panda is not a marsupial but a bear! Let's see in this article why the panda is considered a bear.

In this article you will learn:

  • What are the ancestors of pandas?
  • What family do pandas belong to?
  • Is the red panda related to the giant panda?
  • What family is the panda in?
  • Are Bears dangerous?
  • What is special about pandas?
Let's go!

    Source: Panda Plush Cartoon (We Love Panda©)

    I) Pandas Origin

    To understand the classification of the panda, it is necessary to understand the pandas' origins and to study their ancestors. Here we go!

    A- Giant Panda Origin

    The scientific name of the panda is "Ailuropoda melanoleuca" which means "black and white cat's paw". Over the years, this big cat has been nicknamed:

    • Pi Xiu (evil spirit hunter)
    • Mo, Meng Shi Shou (beast of prey),
    • Bai Bao (white leopard)
    • Shi Tie Shou (iron eater)
    • Daxiongmao (big cat-bear),
    • Bamboo bear,
    • Silver dog
    • Raccoon.

    With all the nicknames we've given him, we're a bit lost in the classification of the giant panda... What are the ancestors of the giant panda?

    panda origin's

    1) What are the ancestors of pandas?

    Today we know three common ancestors of pandas:

    • Cynoidea
    • Ailurarctos
    • Kretzoiarctos. 

    The giant panda belongs to the order of carnivores. Their oldest ancestor of carnivores, Créodont, lived in the Paleocene, 60 million years ago. Miacis, the direct descendant of Créodont, split into two branches. One branch, the Feloidea, consists of modern cat-like mammals. The other branch, the Cynoidea, consists of modern bear-like mammals.

    panda jewelry collection

    Source: Panda Jewelry Collection (We Love Panda©)

    • Ailurarctos

    The ancestor of the giant panda, the Ailurarctos, lived 8-9 million years ago. Since then, giant pandas have evolved and adapted to geological and climatic changes, giving rise to the modern giant panda. Fossils have revealed that they lived near marshes and did not feed on bamboo. It is because the panda migrated in a unique ecological environment that it began to feed on bamboo 🎋, to avoid food competitors.


    • Kretzoiarctos

    The oldest ancestor of the panda was discovered on December 7, 2012, older than the Ailurarctos. Not in China, but in Spain! It is an extinct bear that ate hard plants like bamboo. This bear was named Kretzoiarctos, the oldest bear documented in the Iberian Peninsula, but also the oldest in the lineage of the giant panda. This group of bears was dark with white patches. This new discovery suggests that the lineage of giant pandas does not originate from Asia, as has long been thought, but rather from Western Europe.


    2) What family do pandas belong to?

    Giant pandas belong to the ursidae family. Ursides belong to an ancient mammalian family. The first traces date back 35 million years. At that time, their jaws were distinct from those of other carnivores. Their teeth are larger and less pointed, a dentition adapted to omnivorous food. Today's eight species of bears belong to the same family.

    Indeed, they share a common origin. Their most distant relatives Filholictis or Ballusia. The lineage of the ursidae is then divided into three main branches:

    • The group of the great pandas, comprising a small group of related species
    • The short-faced bears
    • The Ursuspresent in the Northern Hemisphere, with six species, including brown bears (ursus arctos) and black bears (ursus americanus).


    B- Is the red panda related to the giant panda?

    The red panda, is an omnivorous mammal native to the Himalayas. From its scientific name Ailurus fulgens, it is also called lesser panda, red panda, cat-bear, small panda or Firefox. A bunch of confusing little names! Moreover, if you are interested in the Firefox nickname of the red panda, we have dedicated a blog on this subject!

    panda red plush

    Source: Red Panda Plush (We Love Panda©)

    1) Similarities between the great panda and the red panda. 

    The giant panda and the red panda are animals that share much more than a name. Indeed, the red panda and the giant panda share two very particular similarities ≈. But if they share common characteristics, does that mean that the red panda is a bear?

    • Food

    Like the giant panda, the red panda is a vegetarian carnivore 🤔, a very unusual behavior! Their main food is bamboo. This low-energy food explains the placid nature of both animals. They must eat a large quantity of leaves 🍃 to compensate for its deficiencies and thus spend 13 hours a day feeding. For this reason, the red panda limits its energy expenditure as much as possible and looks like a sloth. This specialized diet makes them dependent on bamboo 😅 and explains their disappearance.

    red panda

    • A Thumb

    To catch bamboo shoots, the panda has a false thumb on its front limbs: this thumb is called the panda's sixth finger 🤙. This is the most characteristic adaptation in this species. It is used to grasp the bamboo, peel it and bring it to its mouth. This device allows him to handle food with great dexterity. But beware! This is not an opposable thumb as in primates, but a modified wrist bone 🦴 that acts like a false thumb.

    thumb sixth paw red panda

    2) Are Red Panda Bears?

    The classification of the red panda as a living fossil has long been problematic. Even though they look like raccoons, they have some similarities with bears. Thus, they have been alternately classified with large pandas or with raccoons.

    The common ancestor of large and small pandas is the ancestor of all bears, pinnipeds (seals and walruses), and Musteloidea (weasels and otters. DNA studies show that the red panda moved away from bears about 40 million years ago. DNA places the Red Panda in its own independent family, the Ailuridae. Ailuridae Family is a Family of mammals of the order Carnivores, including extinct species, and the Red Panda. So, Red Pandas is neither bears nor foxes, it is its species. 🤷‍♂️

    red panda and raccoon

    So, the giant panda is a bear of the same family as the brown bear and the polar bear (ursus maritimus). But the red panda, although it shares some characteristics with the giant panda, is not a bear, but its species.

    II- The giant Panda

    A - Pandas are bears

    1) What family is the panda in?

    The panda is a member of the ursidae family, the bear family. This family is composed of 8 different species:

    • 4 Asian bears : The great panda, the Asian black bear, the Malaysian bear (the sun bear), the lazy bear.
    • Two American bears : The black bear and the spectacled bear.
    • Two transcontinental bears : The brown bear and the polar bear.

    Bears can be found everywhere on earth except the African continent. They are considered opportunistic omnivores, capable of eating roots, insects, fruits, small or large mammals, fish... And like humans, bears are plantigrades: they put their entire paws on the ground.  This allows them to stand on all fours as if they were standing! And many characteristics are surrounding the development of the babies bear! Cubs are born blind and hairless. 

    ursidae family

    Bears all have very short-sighted eyes compensated by an overdeveloped sense of smell. This allows them not only to feed, but also to sense the presence of a mate. They are also solitary animals, and only seek the presence of their fellow bears during the breeding season. If two males meet, they fight or intimidate each other until one of them gives in.

    Bears hibernate, which allows them to slow down their body functions for the winter. They fall asleep 😴, their temperature drops, and their brains remain active in case of danger 😏. They do not eat, drink or defecate, which reduces their energy expenditure so that they can get through the winter without problems.

    bear sleep

    2) Are Bears dangerous?

    A bear can be dangerous! Bears are a long way from the angelic faces of our children's stuffed animals! Unpredictable animals, bears are wild and feared by humans and herds. Yet, according to statistics, bears are much less dangerous than bees, worms and mosquitoes 😅! Of the 8 species of bears, polar bears and grizzly bears are the most dangerous for humans.

    There are two types of bear attacks, each hiker must identify to increase his chances of survival:

    • Defensive bear attacks: the most common, illustrated by the classic case of a mother with her cubs being. Faced with this kind of attack playing dead seems to be the best solution.
    • Predatory bear attacks: bear attack for a hunting, with the aim of feeding itself. Here, fighting is unfortunately the only possible solution to escape this predation.

    bear dangerous

    Do you think pandas are dangerous? The giant panda is a vegetarian bear and less dangerous than the polar bear, which feeds on carcasses. His food does not allow him to envisage winning a fight. The giant panda only attacks if it feels in danger! Although clumsy, the panda will have no trouble tearing you apart with its claws and powerful jaw! This adorable fur ball has even attacked a French president. So, we are wary of this beautiful stuffed animal.

    B- What is special about pandas?

    Classified in the bear family, the giant panda admits a few peculiarities. The panda is a bear out of the ordinary. It is considered by scientists to be a living fossil. It has an exceptional black and white coat. He has a false thumb and It feeds exclusively on bamboo while its digestive system is carnivorous. Finally, the panda is a bear that does not hibernate, but migrates! 

    1) Black and White Bear

    The panda has a peculiar fur. It is black and white, the ears and eye contour are black, the rest of the head is white. This very distinctive two-tone color is unique among bears.

    Why are pandas black and white? The only bear with such a sharp coat is the spectacled bear, the closest relative of the giant panda. Its coat allows it to camouflage itself in winter with the color white, and to camouflage itself in summer with the color black for shaded areas. The black eye contour allows pandas to distinguish themselves from each other.


    2) Panda feeding and a thumb

    • Food

    The eight species of ursidae are distributed throughout the world. This wide geographical distribution reveals a high adaptive capacity. The most striking example is that of feeding, opportunistic, bears eat what they find. From giant herbivorous pandas to carnivorous polar bears, each species has evolved to adapt to its habitat. The giant panda, and the vegetarian bear of the eight species, eats meat only as a last resort. Maybe that's why pandas live longer: look how long do panda lives? 🙃

    panda food

    • Thumb

    All bear species have strong, non-retractable claws and have five toes on their paws. Giant pandas have an extra thumb on their front paws. This sixth finger, which occupies the place of the thumb in humans or in great apes, is an elongated wrist bone. Pandas use this feature to grip bamboo.

    panda thumb

    3) The Panda does not hibernate

    Not all bears need hibernation. Because contrary to legend, the bear does not hibernate, it winters. It does not fall into lethargy but takes shelter in a den, where it folds in on itself to conserve its body heat. The species of bears that overwinter are those that encounter severe cold spells: the polar bear, the brown bear... but not the Malaysian bear or the giant panda because they find food all year round. Also, the panda that feeds on 99% bamboo does not have enough energy to winter🥱.

    The panda is a special bear that shares many characteristics with its cousins, including its vulnerability to human activity that destroys bear habitat. In fact, eight bear species currently live on the planet, six of which are endangered animals.

    The giant panda recently left the red list. It has moved out of the "endangered" category due to bear conservation policies and conservation efforts by China 🇨🇳. But it remains vulnerable. The Malaysian bear, the Asiatic black bear, the spectacled bear and the sloth bear are on the IUCN list of vulnerable species. And the polar bear could well disappear by the end of the century due to global warming. The brown bear, the American black bear and the kodiak bear are classified by the IUCN as being of lesser importance because of the high bear population.

    Join the Panda movement!

    So now you know that the panda is a bear, but more importantly a special bear, a real living fossil. We have just seen that the panda shares many similarities with the other categories of bears, especially its vulnerability to human development.

    At We Love Panda we advocate the idea that education is an essential lever for the conservation of a species. This is why we make every effort to raise awareness among young and adult alike by sharing our knowledge about the panda and by spanking, with 2% of our profits going to WWF.

    Now, you too can take action! We've selected the best panda items especially for you. Discover them by clicking on the picture right here.

    panda backpack collection


     Source: Panda Backpack Collection (We Love Panda©)

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