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Why are pandas black and white?

For the past 50 years, visitors to the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, D.C. have been able to observe giant pandas. It’s one of the few places in the United States to see these black and white bears. For our latest episode we took a field trip to the zoo to visit the three pandas currently living there and answer panda questions with zookeeper Mariel Lally. We tackle: Why do animals live in the zoo? Why are pandas black and white? Do pandas hibernate? How can we save the pandas? And check out our social media pages for lots of pictures!

Download our learning guides: PDF | Google Slide |Transcript

  • Three pandas live at the National Zoo: adults Tian Tian and Mei Xiang and their cub, Xiao Qi Ji.
  • Zookeepers are never in the same space as the pandas. Even though they are herbivores, pandas are still wild animals with sharp claws and big teeth, so it’s important for people to stay safe.
  • Researchers at the National Zoo have worked with colleagues in China on a breeding program for both captive and wild pandas. That research has helped pandas go from endangered to vulnerable. They’re still at risk of extinction, but doing better than they were just a few decades ago.
  • Pandas eat 100 pounds of bamboo per day! The National Zoo cuts bamboo from sites around the D.C. area, including at some local private homes.
  • Researchers aren’t sure why pandas are black and white, but the leading theory is that the white color provides camouflage in their snowy natural habitat and the black fur helps them blend in when they hide in shady bamboo forests. Panda cubs do have predators in the wild.
  • Pandas do not hibernate, but they spend their time eating or sleeping. They have a period of deep sleep, similar to the torpor of reptiles. Keepers say they try not to wake sleeping pandas because they get very grumpy! (So the saying, “Never wake a sleeping bear” is especially true for pandas.)
  • Zoo pandas get daily training to make their care easier. For example, they learn their names and they are taught to open their mouths and show a paw so they can more easily receive medical care.
  • Zoos used to display animals primarily for human enjoyment. Now, most zoos focus on species conservation, research and educating the public about animal species. 


National Zoo’s Panadriffic Pack (games and coloring pages)

Panda Cam

Jane Lindholm is the host, executive producer and creator of But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids. In addition to her work on our international kids show, she produces special projects for Vermont Public. Until March 2021, she was host and editor of the award-winning Vermont Public program Vermont Edition.
Melody is the Contributing Editor for But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids and the co-author of two But Why books with Jane Lindholm.

But Why is a project of Vermont Public.

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