For more than a century, scientists have debated a fundamental question: Are giant pandas really bears? Pandas look, walk, and climb like bears and have many similar skull features, but they also share characteristics with raccoons, such as a shortened snout. So should pandas be classified as bears, as raccoons, or in a group all their own?
In recent years, sophisticated research techniques have allowed scientists to define relationships more precisely. Studies of the genetic code (DNA) of giant pandas indicate that they're most closely related to bears, placing them in the Ursidae family. Scientists speculate that pandas may have split from the main bear lineage millions of years ago, when they adapted to an ecosystem in which bamboo was the most plentiful resource.
Why is it important to know what giant pandas are? The more we know about pandas, says Don Lindburg of the San Diego Zoo, the better we can help them reproduce and survive.
—Kathy B. Maher