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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. were able to see giant pandas. But recently, China asked for those pandas back. (Technically, all pandas in the United States are considered “on loan” from China.) With pandas in the news, we’re bringing back the episode from our 2022 field trip to the zoo. Zookeeper Mariel Lally answered all of your panda questions. Among the questions we tackled: Why do animals live in the zoo? Why are pandas black and white? Do pandas hibernate? How can we save the pandas? Check out our social media pages for lots of pictures!

Download our learning guides: PDF |Google Slide | Transcript

  • Three pandas lived 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 pandas are herbivores, they’re 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 in their native habitat, but doing better than they were just a few decades ago.
  • Pandas eat 100 pounds of bamboo each 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 do 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 caring for them easier–for both the human caretakers and the pandas themselves. For example, the bears learn their names and 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. 
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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