Giant Pandas at the Smithsonian's National Zoo
The David M. Rubenstein Family Giant Panda Habitat is home to four giant pandas: Tian Tian (adult male), Mei Xiang (adult female), Bao Bao (juvenile female), and a male cub named Bei Bei. Giant pandas are a "must see" for any Zoo visitor, and website visitors can catch a glimpse of these bears on the Panda Cam, sponsored by Ford Motor Company Fund.
Native to central China, giant pandas have come to symbolize endangered species. As few as 1,864 giant pandas live in their native habitat, while another 300 pandas live in zoos and breeding centers around the world. The Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute is a leader in giant panda conservation. Ever since these charismatic bears arrived at the Zoo in 1972, our animal care staff and scientists have studied giant panda biology, behavior, breeding, reproduction, and disease. These experts are also leading ecology studies in giant panda's native habitat. Our team works closely with colleagues in China to share what we have learned about giant pandas in order to advance conservation efforts around the world.
How to See Bei Bei
The panda house opens to visitors at 9 a.m. Please note: Cub viewing is not guaranteed. Animal behavior, weather, and other factors may affect viewing.
Can't make it to the Zoo? You can always watch Mei and Bei Bei on the panda cams.
Tips for Visiting the Giant Pandas
Depending on the time and the weather, the giant pandas have a choice to be outside or inside the panda house. The pandas typically have outdoor access until 2 p.m. The panda house, an indoor viewing area, is open to visitors from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. We recommend arriving early to avoid large crowds and long lines. Long lines require earlier cut-off times to ensure those waiting can enter the panda house before it closes. Please note that all of the Zoo's animals have the option to enjoy some time away from the crowds. If you can't find all of the pandas, they may be spending time in an enclosure behind-the-scenes.
Visitors can attend a giant panda keeper talk as part of the Zoo's daily animal demonstrations. Check the calendar for a schedule of events.
Flash photography and video with handheld devices are permitted inside the panda house. For the safety of our visitors, the use of tripods is prohibited. (See "Park Rules" for more information.)
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Saving Giant Pandas
For more than 40 years, the Zoo has celebrated these charismatic bears by creating and maintaining one of the world's foremost panda conservation programs. In that time, the Zoo's team - consisting of dozens of animal care staff, scientists, researchers, international collaborators and conservationists - has made great strides in saving this species from extinction by studying giant panda behavior, health, habitat, and reproduction. Specifically, it has allowed scientists at the Smithsonian's National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute to learn about panda estrus, breeding, pregnancy, pseudopregnancy and cub development - work that is shared around the world with other institutions that also care for and breed this endangered species.
Breeding Giant Pandas
Scientists from the Smithsonian Conservation and Biology Institute's Center for Conservation Genomics, have become adept at studying the genetic relatedness of pandas in human care. Chinese colleagues maintain an up-to-date studbook of these endangered animals. Our scientists developed the formula used to make breeding recommendations for the entire giant panda population in human care, ensuring that it is genetically healthy. Scientists are working to preserve 90 percent of the genetic diversity of the giant panda population in human care.
Panda breeding season is a race against the biological clock. It only comes once a year and our giant panda team, including scientists from the Smithsonian Conservation and Biology Institute's Center for Species Survival, and vets, keepers, and biologists from the animal care teams must be ready. Giant panda females, like Mei Xiang, ovulate for just 24 to 72 hours. To identify the opening of that tiny window, animal keepers carefully watch Mei Xiang for any behavioral sign of estrus. At the same time, scientists monitor hormones in her urine to pinpoint the window when she is ready to breed. If attempts at natural breeding are not successful, scientists can step in, collect fresh or frozen-thawed semen from a male, and use the genetic material collected to artificially inseminate a female. At the Zoo, three artificial inseminations have resulted in successful births: male Tai Shan in 2005, female Bao Bao in 2013, and a cub in 2015.
Saving Pandas in the Wild
Under the terms of the Zoo's agreement with China, scientists at the Smithsonian Conservation and Biology Institute's Conservation Ecology Center have studied these bears both in the wild and in human care.
Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute ecologists spend months in China every year studying wild pandas and their neighbors, such as Asiatic black bears and takin. They teach colleagues in China how to conduct censuses and surveys of large mammals, including giant pandas that live in the wild, using geographic information systems (GIS) and other high-tech tools for tracking wildlife.
They are also working to identify new landscapes for giant panda reintroduction. Field research has revealed that wild pandas' habitat is highly fragmented, which means pandas have a difficult time finding a mate. To address that problem, Zoo scientists and colleagues have been exploring the possibility of creating "corridors" of forests that link isolated habitats. Such corridors would give giant pandas more options for movement and mate selection. They might also assist with the reintroduction of captive-born pandas into the wild.
The Zoo's pandas are part of Panda Watch behavior study. Each day, dedicated Friends of the National Zoo volunteers called Panda Watchers monitor the pandas' behavior via the Panda Cam. Over the years, they've amassed mountains of data on the species, which is notoriously difficult to study in the wild.
In December 2011, David M. Rubenstein donated $4.5 million to the Zoo to fund the giant panda program through 2016. In appreciation, the giant panda complex was named the David M. Rubenstein Family Giant Panda Habitat. In addition, young conservation biologists in the U.S. and in China who were awarded Smithsonian's National Zoo fellowships for their work to save this endangered species were named "David M. Rubenstein Fellows." The gift was used to fund conservation efforts in China, reproductive science, professional training programs, giant panda care at the Zoo, upgrades to the Zoo habitats and public education. Mr. Rubenstein provided an additional $4.5 million donation in fall 2015.
The gift allows the Zoo's animal care and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute's scientific team to proceed with the five-year science plan established with their Chinese colleagues from the China Wildlife Conservation Association. The science plan has specific goals: to examine the creation and impact of corridors to link fragmented habitats that will benefit giant pandas and other wildlife species, including promoting genetic diversity; examine how to restore habitats, especially those where pandas appear to be making a comeback; provide advice on giant panda reintroduction; examine the potential impact of transmissible diseases on giant pandas and other wildlife species, including providing advice on implementing new programs associated with a Wildlife Disease Control Center being built in Sichuan Province; and continue research on giant panda reproduction and management, because, although there has been major success in Chinese breeding centers, some pandas still experience reproductive challenges.
Giant Panda Facts
Genus and species: Ailuropoda melanoleuca
Giant pandas live in a few mountain ranges in central China, in Sichuan, Shaanxi, and Gansu provinces. They once lived in lowland areas, but farming, forest clearing, and other development now restrict giant pandas to the mountains.
In the wild, giant pandas live in broadleaf and coniferous forests with a dense understory of bamboo, at elevations between 5,000 and 10,000 feet. Torrential rains or dense mist throughout the year characterizes these forests, often shrouded in heavy clouds.
The pandas' habitat in the Zoo is designed to mimic the pandas' natural habitat of rocky, lush terrain in China. Each element has a purpose - from helping the pandas stay cool in hot weather to giving them a place to hide when they need privacy. There are rock and tree structures perfect for climbing; grottoes, pools, and streams for keeping cool; and shrubs and trees, including weeping willows, corktrees, and maples, and several species of bamboo.
The giant panda habitat has green design elements including a solar hot water system, columns made from bamboo (a rapidly renewable resource), and a green roof to reduce stormwater runoff. There are also visitor paths paved with natural tree-resin bound paving material and recycled rubber and benches made from ipe wood, which is naturally resistant to pests and rot.
The giant panda, a black-and-white bear, has a body typical of bears. It has black fur on ears, eye patches, muzzle, legs, and shoulders. The rest of the animal's coat is white. Although scientists do not know why these unusual bears are black and white, some speculate that the bold coloring provides effective camouflage into their shade-dappled snowy and rocky surroundings. The panda's thick, wooly coat keeps it warm in the cool forests of its habitat. Giant pandas have large molar teeth and strong jaw muscles for crushing tough bamboo. Many people find these chunky, lumbering animals to be cute, but giant pandas can be as dangerous as any other bear.
About the size of an American black bear, giant pandas stand between two and three feet tall at the shoulder (on all four legs), and reach four to six feet long. Males are larger than females, weighing up to 250 pounds in the wild. Females rarely reach 220 pounds.
The giant panda is listed as endangered in the World Conservation Union's (IUCN's) Red List of Threatened Species. There are about 1,600 left in the wild. More than 300 pandas live in zoos and breeding centers around the world, mostly in China.
Scientists aren't sure how long giant pandas live in the wild, but they are sure it's shorter than lifespans in zoos. Chinese scientists have reported zoo pandas as old as 35. The National Zoo's Hsing-Hsing died at age 28 in 1999.
A wild giant panda's diet is almost exclusively (99 percent) bamboo. The balance consists of other grasses and occasional small rodents or musk deer fawns. In zoos, giant pandas eat bamboo, a special high-fiber biscuit, carrots, apples, and sweet potatoes.
Adult giant pandas are generally solitary, but they do communicate periodically through scent marks, calls, and occasional meetings. Offspring stay with their mothers from one and a half to three years.
The giant panda has lived in bamboo forests for several million years. It is a highly specialized animal, with unique adaptations.
Millions of Zoo visitors enjoy watching giant pandas eat. A panda usually eats while sitting upright, in a pose that resembles how humans sit on the floor. This posture leaves the front paws free to grasp bamboo stems with the help of a "pseudo thumb," formed by an elongated and enlarged wrist bone covered with a fleshy pad of skin. The panda also uses its powerful jaws and strong teeth to crush the tough, fibrous bamboo into bits.
A giant panda's digestive system is more similar to that of a carnivore than an herbivore, and so much of what is eaten is passed as waste. To make up for the inefficient digestion, a panda needs to consume a comparatively large amount of food-from 20 to 40 pounds of bamboo each day-to get all its nutrients. To obtain this much food means that a panda must spend 10 to 16 hours a day foraging and eating. The rest of its time is spent mostly sleeping and resting.
Wild giant pandas get much of the water they need from bamboo, a grass whose contents are about half water. (New bamboo shoots are about 90 percent water.) But giant pandas need more water than what bamboo alone can provide. So almost every day wild pandas also drink fresh water from rivers and streams that are fed by melting snowfall in high mountain peaks. The temperate forests of central China where giant pandas live receive about 30 to 40 inches of rain and snow a year. Charleston, West Virginia-a city with a similar temperate climate-receives about the same amount of rain and snow: an average of 42.5 inches a year.
Giant pandas reach breeding maturity between four and eight years of age. They may be reproductive until about age 20. Female pandas ovulate only once a year, in the spring. A short period of two to three days around ovulation is the only time she is able to conceive. Calls and scents draw males and females to each other.
Female giant pandas give birth between 95 and 160 days after mating. Although females may give birth to two young, usually only one survives. Giant panda cubs may stay with their mothers for up to three years before striking out on their own. This means a wild female, at best, can produce young only every other year; in her lifetime, she may successfully raise only five to eight cubs. The giant pandas' naturally slow breeding rate prevents a population from recovering quickly from illegal hunting, habitat loss, and other human-related causes of mortality.
At birth, the cub is helpless, and it takes considerable effort on the mother's part to raise it. A newborn cub weighs three to five ounces and is about the size of a stick of butter. Pink, hairless, and blind, the cub is 1/700th the size of its mother. Except for a marsupial (such as the kangaroo or opossum), a giant panda baby is the smallest mammal newborn relative to its mother's size.
Cubs do not open their eyes until they are six to eight weeks of age and are not mobile until three months. A cub may nurse for eight to nine months. A cub is nutritionally weaned at one year, but not socially weaned for up to two years.
A wild panda spends much of its day resting, feeding, and seeking food. Unlike other bears from temperate climates, giant pandas do not hibernate. Until recently, scientists thought giant pandas spent most of their lives alone, with males and females meeting only during the breeding season. Recent studies paint a different picture, in which small groups of pandas share a large territory and sometimes meet outside the breeding season. Much remains to be learned about the secret lives of these elusive animals, and every new discovery helps scientists in their battle to save this species.
Enrichment helps animals demonstrate their natural behavior, adds variety to their day, allows them exercise, gives them choices in their environment, and enhances their well-being. Enrichment also gives Zoo scientists the chance to study and observe the animals' behavior. What the scientists learn can benefit both Zoo animals and wild animals.
There are several different kinds of enrichment, including objects, sounds, and smells that challenge the animals, and stimulating and naturalistic enclosures.
Keepers work at varying the pandas' routine by preparing toys with an added twist: Honey, apples, and leaf-eater biscuits are often put inside to provide a challenge. They are also sometimes given water bottles, blankets, burlap bags, and boxes. Another option is the fruitsicle-frozen fruit juice and water, sometimes with cut up fruit.
Most of the pandas' toys are made of heavy-duty plastic, rubber, or bamboo since those are materials that can withstand the force of a bear whose jaws crush bamboo all day!
A Brief History of Panda's at the ZooSee the Giant Panda timeline
At dinner in Beijing in February 1972, First Lady Patricia Nixon mentioned her fondness for giant pandas to Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. Eager for better relations with the U.S., Zhou knew just what to say: "I'll give you some." On April 16, 1972, President and Mrs. Nixon formally welcomed giant pandas Ling-Ling (a female) and Hsing-Hsing (a male) to the Smithsonian's National Zoo. Over the next 20 years, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing produced five cubs. Sadly, none of the offspring survived for more than a few days. But ever since their arrival, the pandas have symbolized cross-cultural collaboration between the United States and China.
The arrival of giant pandas drew millions of fans from around the world to the Zoo. More importantly, it gave the Zoo an unparalleled opportunity to study giant panda behavior, health, and reproduction. Specifically, it allowed scientists at the Smithsonian Conservation and Biology Institute to learn about panda estrus, breeding, pregnancy, pseudopregnancy and cub development. Armed with this knowledge, the Zoo became a leader in giant panda conservation and shared the information learned with other institutions that wanted to care for and breed this endangered species.
On Dec. 6, 2000, giant pandas Mei Xiang and Tian Tian arrived at the Zoo. Unlike Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing, however, the Zoo's second pair of pandas are on loan. In exchange, the Zoo contributes funds and expertise toward conservation efforts in China. The Zoo reached an agreement with the Chinese government, stipulating that the pair could live at the Zoo for 10 years in exchange for $10 million. On Jan. 20, 2011, Zoo Director Dennis Kelly and Secretary General of the China Wildlife Conservation Association Zang Chunlin signed a new Giant Panda Cooperative Research and Breeding Agreement, which stipulated that giant pandas Mei Xiang and Tian Tian would remain at the Zoo until Dec. 15, 2015.
Giant pandas will continue to live at the Zoo through the end of 2020. The breeding agreement signed by Zoo Director Dennis Kelly and Li Qingwen, deputy secretary general of the China Wildlife and Conservation Association (CWCA), will take effect Dec. 7, 2015, through Dec. 7, 2020.
In December 2011, David M. Rubenstein donated $4.5 million to the Zoo to fund the giant panda program through 2016. In appreciation, the giant panda complex-- home to giant pandas Tian Tian (male) and Mei Xiang (female)-- was named the David M. Rubenstein Family Giant Panda Habitat. In addition, young conservation biologists in the U.S. and in China who were awarded Zoo fellowships for their work to save this endangered species were named "David M. Rubenstein Fellows." The gift was used to fund conservation efforts in China, reproductive science, professional training programs, giant panda care at the Zoo, upgrades to the Zoo habitats and public education. Mr. Rubenstein provided an additional $4.5 million donation in fall 2015 to support the program through 2020.
The gift allows the Zoo to expand its educational outreach efforts and the Zoo's animal care and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute's scientific team to proceed with the five-year science plan established with their Chinese colleagues from the China Wildlife Conservation Association. The science plan has specific goals: to examine the creation and impact of corridors to link fragmented habitats that will benefit giant pandas and other wildlife species, including promoting genetic diversity; examine how to restore habitats, especially those where pandas appear to be making a comeback; provide advice on giant panda reintroduction; examine the potential impact of transmissible diseases on giant pandas and other wildlife species, including providing advice on implementing new programs associated with a Wildlife Disease Control Center being built in Sichuan Province; and continue research on giant panda reproduction and management, because, although there has been major success in Chinese breeding centers, some pandas still experience reproductive challenges.
Mei Xiang (may-SHONG), the adult female, was born on July 22, 1998 at the China Research and Conservation Center for the Giant Panda in Wolong, Sichuan Province. Her name means "beautiful fragrance." She has black hip-high "stockings" extending up her hind legs, and the black band across her shoulders is wider in the middle than Tian's. Her eye patches are oval, and a pale black band runs across the bridge of her nose. She weighs about 233 pounds.
Tian Tian (t-YEN t-YEN), the adult male, was born on August 27, 1997 at the China Research and Conservation Center for the Giant Panda in Wolong, Sichuan Province. His name means "more and more." Tian Tian has black "knee socks." The black band across his shoulders narrows in the middle. His eye patches are shaped like kidney beans, and he has two black dots across the bridge of his nose. He weighs about 264 pounds.
Mei Xiang and Tian Tian's second surviving cub, Bao Bao, was born on August 23, 2013 at 5:32 p.m. Bao Bao tanslates as "precious treasure" in Chinese. She received her name on December 1, 2013 when she was 100 days old.
After being artificially inseminated in April, Mei Xiang gave birth to a male cub on August 22, 2015. DNA results concluded that Tian Tian is the father. Keep up to date with Mei Xiang and the new cub on Instagram using #PandaStory. He was named on September 25, 2015 by the First Lady of the United States and the First Lady of the People's Republic of China.
Want to learn about the panda cub and our reproductive science? Click here
The Zoo's two adult giant pandas arrived on December 6, 2000. Ever since the National Zoo received Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling from China in 1972 as part of President Nixon's historic visit, scientists here have been leaders in the field of giant panda biology and conservation. The Zoo is continuing that leadership through research involving the new pandas and research in China that will help save giant pandas in the wild. Furthermore, giant pandas can inspire visitors to care for wildlife and threatened ecosystems around the world. They are ambassadors for conservation.
Mei Xiang (may SHONG), the female, means "beautiful fragrance" in Chinese. Tian Tian (t-YEN t-YEN), the male, means "more and more." Their male cub, born on July 9, 2005, was named Tai Shan (tie SHON) by a public vote. His name means "peaceful mountain." He left the Zoo for China on February 4, 2010. Mei Xiang gave birth to juvenile female, Bao Bao on August 23, 2013. Her name means "precious treasure." On August 22, 2015, Mei Xiang gave birth to a male cub sired by Tian Tian. In a ceremony on Sept. 25, 2015, First Lady Michelle Obama and First Lady of the Peopleâ€™s Republic of China, Peng Liyuan, named the cub Bei Bei, which means "precious, treasure" and is complementary to his sister, Bao Bao's name.
Mei Xiang was born on July 22, 1998, and Tian Tian was born on August 27, 1997. Mei Xiang weighs about 233 pounds, and Tian Tian weighs about 264 pounds. Adult female pandas usually reach 220 pounds, and adult males 250 pounds.
Their first offspring, Tai Shan, weighed 184 pounds in February 2010. He left the Zoo for China on February 4, 2010. Bao Bao weighs 140 pounds.
Giant pandas are adapted to living in high-altitude forests in the mountains of central China, and so they can easily deal with the wintry weather of Washington. However, the heat and humidity of the summers here are more difficult for them. Therefore, the Zoo has installed air-conditioned grottos and misting sprays in their renovated outdoor enclosure so the pandas can stay outside all summer long, if they choose to.
The National Zoo is a world leader at breeding endangered species. Our giant pandas are part of a breeding program that carefully matches potential giant panda parents in order to keep the population genetically healthy well into the future. On July 9, 2005, Mei Xiang gave birth to a cub. On October 17, when he was 100 days old, he was named Tai Shan by a vote open to the public. More than 200,000 votes were cast. He left the Zoo for China on February 4, 2010.
On September 16, 2012, Mei Xiang gave birth to a cub, who died on September 23, 2012 as a result of liver damage caused by underdeveloped lungs.
On August 23, 2013, Mei Xiang gave birth to Bao Bao. On August 24, 2013, Mei Xiang gave birth to a stillborn cub.
On August 22, 2015, Mei Xiang gave birth two cubs. On August 26, 2015 one of the two cubs died. The surviving cub is named Bei Bei.
Any baby born to Mei Xiang and Tian Tian belongs to China, and the Zoo will send the offspring to China at about age four so that it can become part of the breeding population there.
In December 2009, the Zoo announced that Tai Shan would be sent to China in early 2010, per the Zoo's agreement with the China Wildlife Conservation Association. He left the Zoo for China on February 4, 2010.
In the wild, giant pandas eat bamboo almost exclusively. Here at the Zoo, they are fed bamboo as well as highly nutritious biscuits and carrots and apples.
The Zoo's Department of Nutrition grows bamboo at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. It also cuts bamboo from 15 stands located in the Greater Washington, D.C. Area.
Thanks for offering, but we don't accept bamboo donations. You can support the Zoo's panda conservation efforts by donating online. Donate now.
No. Like any bear, giant pandas are very strong and potentially dangerous, so staff never go in an enclosure with them.
Mei Xiang and Tian Tian belong to China and came to the Zoo in 2000 for ten years as part of a research, conservation and breeding program. On January 20, 2011, a new agreement was signed (effective through December 5, 2015), stipulating that the Zoo will conduct research in the areas of breeding and cub behavior. The first two years of the agreement include a cooperative study involving reproductive experts from the China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda in Wolong, China, and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute; they will oversee the breeding of Mei Xiang and Tian Tian.
Giant pandas are an endangered species. They are difficult to census in the wild, but scientists believe there are about 1,864 remaining in the wild. These individuals live in scattered populations in central China, mostly in Sichuan Province, but also in Gansu and Shaanxi Provinces. Giant pandas specialize in eating bamboo, and so if the temperate bamboo forests in the mountains of central China continue to be cut down, there will be no room for giant pandas in the wild. This is why it is so crucial to support conservation research in China, and why we need to have a population of giant pandas in zoos as an insurance policy against extinction.
The giant panda is a member of the bear family, which scientists call the Ursidae. Among the bears, it is most closely related to the spectacled bear of South America.
The red panda, sometimes called the lesser panda, is a raccoon-sized mammal that lives in the same kind of habitat as giant pandas but over a larger area in Asia. Its fur is reddish and it eats bamboo. Red pandas are not related to giant pandas.
Panda gestation length ranges from three to six months, or 90 to 180 days, with an average pregnancy lasting 135 days. This wide variation in gestation occurs because the fertilized egg usually floats freely in the mother's uterus before it implants and begins developing. Once the embryo is attached to the uterine wall, its development continues until a panda is born; newborn pandas are blind, very small and without almost any fur. A newborn panda is about three to five ounces. In American black bears, the actual period of time the embryo is developing after implantation is about eight weeks. Pandas' actual development time is probably similar. Much of a panda's physical development occurs after birth.
Pandas are solitary animals, but they vocalize extensively during social interactions. They "chirp" during mating and "honk" in distress. A "bleat" (a twittering goat sound) is a friendly contact call. A "chomp" (a rapid opening and closing of the mouth so the teeth audibly meet) is a mild defensive threat. A "bark" is used to scare an enemy. A squeal indicates submission or pain.
Our website has plenty of information about visiting the Zoo, including hours, parking, transportation, driving instructions, and more. Admission to the Zoo is FREE.
If you can't see our pandas in person, the easiest thing to do is click on the panda web cams. You can see live, streaming video of the pandas. But we also hope people from out of town can visit Washington, D.C., and stop by sometime!
For tour groups, please contact Guest Services at 202.633.4888.
Many people volunteer at the Zoo. For complete information, including whom to contact, read about volunteering with FONZ and the Zoo.
You will find all the information you need for your report on pandas on the Internet. Start with Giant Panda Facts then surf around the other giant panda pages on our website.
All our information on giant pandas is located on this website. We have no additional information to send you.