Hua Mei, the baby panda born at the San Diego Zoo in 2000. Picture taken summer 2001.
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Despite being taxonomically a carnivore, its diet is overwhelmingly vegetarian. In fact, it lives almost entirely on bamboo, although, like most animals, pandas have been known to eat eggs, and they consume some insects along with their bamboo diet.
It is also distantly related to the Red Panda, but the shared name appears to derive from their common bamboo diet. Until its relation with Red Panda was discovered in 1901, the Giant Panda was known as parti-coloured bear.
The precise taxonomic classification of the panda is still under debate; it may be more closely related to raccoons than to bears.
Pandas are an endangered species, threatened by continued loss of their habitat and by a low birthrate, both in the wild and in captivity. Only about a thousand are believed to survive in the wild. The panda is the symbol of the World Wildlife Fund, a conservation organization (http://www.wwf.org).
The panda has an unusual paw, with a "thumb" and five fingers; the "thumb" is actually a modified wrist-bone. (Stephen Jay Gould wrote an essay about this, then used the title The Panda's Thumb for a book of collected essays.)
It was first made known to the West in 1869 by the French missionary Armand David (1826-1900). The Giant Panda has long been a favourite of the public, at least partly on account of the fact that the species has an appealing baby-like appearance that makes it seem to resemble a living teddy bear. The fact that it is usually depicted reclining peacefully eating bamboo, as opposed to hunting, also adds to its image of innocence.