Stamp Stories: Giant Pandas

Just For Kids!
Giant Panda stamp featuring an illustration of a panda chewing on a branch

Celebrate fifty years of giant pandas at the Smithsonian! Educators from the National Postal Museum and the National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute highlight giant panda facts and history with photos, a children’s book, and postage stamps.

Giant Panda stamp

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Maureen: Hi, I’m Maureen from the National Postal Museum.

Emily: And I’m Emily from the National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute

Maureen: Welcome to Stamp Stories, where we explore topics that appear on postage stamps. New stamps come out every year on wide variety of topics. Today we’re going to learn about giant pandas.

Emily: I am so excited to be here with you today to learn about giant pandas and celebrate that this year, 2022, is the 50th anniversary of giant pandas arriving at the National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute! Let’s get started.

Let’s look together at this picture of Tai Shan, the first giant panda cub that was born at the National Zoo. What do you notice about him? How would you describe him to a friend?

I notice that he is a big animal, with lots of shaggy black and white fur. I notice that he has four legs with long claws on each foot.

I notice that his body is mainly white, with black legs, a black band over his shoulders, black ears, and black eyespots.

All giant pandas have black and white markings on the same areas of their face and body. But every panda has black and white markings that are just a little different than the markings of other pandas.

Let’s look at this picture of Tian Tian and Mei Xiang, our male and female pandas that live at the National Zoo. Look closely at the shape of the eye spots. On the left, Mei Xiang has eyespots that are a little more round and fat, like ovals. On the right, Tian Tian has eye spots that are a little longer and get narrower in the middle, like kidney beans. Each panda has small details that make them look just a little different from every other panda, just like there are details that make you and me look different from each other. Those small details are what make every person and every panda unique.

All pandas having black and white legs, ears, and eye spots is a pattern, something that happens over and over again. This pattern is one of the characteristics that makes pandas different from other bears. Giant pandas are a species of bear. A species is a group of living things that all share the same characteristics and can have babies that also have those same characteristics. In this picture, you can see Mei Xiang and her baby Xiao Qi Ji.

Giant pandas live in the mountain forests of China, and they are one of the eight species of bear in the world.  At the National Zoo, you can visit Andean bears, sloth bears, and, of course, the giant panda.

Do you notice anything that the sloth bear, Andean bear, and giant panda all have in common?

I notice that they all have short necks; long, pointed snouts; small eyes; and small, rounded ears. These are features that all bears have in common.

All bears also have in common that they are omnivores. That means that they eat both meat and plants. But pandas are a little special here too. Do you know what a giant panda’s favorite food is?

Pandas love to eat bamboo. Bamboo is a kind of woody grass, a plant that grows really quickly. But pandas have to eat a LOT of it every day. They eat almost 100 pounds of bamboo a day and can spend almost 16 hours a day eating!

Their bodies have even evolved a special feature on their front paws that helps them eat bamboo more easily. They have a pseudo thumb, a special small bone in their wrist that has grown over time to act like a thumb to help them hold the bamboo stalks. These special features that animals have evolved to help them survive are called adaptations.

Let’s read a story about a little panda who loves bamboo, During the story, listen for how he decides which animals to invite to his pand party. What do these animals have in common?

Today we’re going to read Xander’s Panda Party, written by Linda Sue Park, and illustrated by Matt Phelan. Special thanks to Curtis Brown, Limited, and HarperCollins Children’s Collections for permission to read this book with you today.

Xander planned a panda party. Yes, a dandy whoop-de-do!

But Xander was the only panda. Just one panda at the zoo. Xander sat and chewed bamboo. He changed his plans and point of view.

Xander planned a bear affair and thought of all the bears he knew. Black Bear. Brown Bear. Both the Polars. Grizzly is a rock-and-roller! Koala is a little dozy, likes her tree all leafy-cozy. I will ask her anyway. Surely she will want to play!

Xander’s party preparations took great pains and perspiration. The menu needs some taste sensations, plus the proper vegetation.

Xander handed out the cards: Calling all bears: A celebration invitation – food and fun and conversation!

From her tree Koala hollered,

Maureen: “Xander, I am not a bear!”

Emily: Xander didn’t understand her. “Koala Bear, you’re not a bear?” He stared at her in consternation.

Maureen: “Sorry for the complication. I know I’m called Koala Bear, but I am not a bear, I swear. I am a marsupial. Marsupials – we’re rather rare. Will I not be welcome there?”

Emily: Xander fetched some more bamboo. He wasn’t sure what he should do. He chewed a slew of new bamboo; he nibbled, gnawed, and thought things through.

And he planned a hearty party! “Fur or hair or hide can come. All the mammals, every one!” Calling all mammals: A celebration invitation – food and fun and recreation!

Soon Rhinoceros sent word:

Maureen: It may sound a bit absurd, but I won’t come without my bird.

Emily: Xander felt a little blue. He chewed bamboo, a stalk or two. He fidgeted and paced the floor, then scratched an itch and paced some more. Finally, a firm decision. Xander’s brand-new party vision! “All the birds and all the mammals, from whooping cranes to hybrid camels – anyone with fur or feathers, congregating all together.

Calling all mammals and birds: A celebration invitation – food and fun and jubilation!

Maureen: “Xander,”

Emily: said the crocodile, with a most beguiling smile.

Maureen: “There’s a party, so I’ve heard. You’ve invited all the birds. Birds and reptiles – long ago, we were related, don’t you know? If you didn’t, now you do. Can’t the reptiles join in, too?”

Emily: Xander didn’t chew bamboo. Instead he swithered in a stew. What to do? His worries grew. Was his party falling through?

Then came a voice from down below, somewhere near his little toe:

Maureen: “Why don’t you ask everyone? I can help you. We’ll have fun. Nice to meet you, Xander Panda. I’m Amanda Salamander.”

Emily: Amanda Salamander lent a hand to Xander Panda. Xander’s party plans went from grand to even grander! Calling all creatures to a best of all festival! A celebration invitation – total zoo participation!

Almost time to start the party – then Amanda squeaked out,

Maureen: “Wait! What’s that coming through the gate?” A truck…a ramp…a wooden crate?”

Emily: Xander didn’t have a clue. He shook his head and wondered, “Who-?”

Maureen: “Hello. Hello. And how are you? Zhu Zi here. Please call me Zhu.”

“I’m Amanda.”

Emily: “My name’s Xander. Did you say your name is Zoo?”

Maureen: “No, not Zoo. My name is Zhu. Like saying ‘zoo’ mixed up with ‘shoe.’ In Chinese zhu zi means ‘bamboo.’”

Emily: And Xander knew just what to do.

What a party! What a ball! Lots of new friends, tall and small! Every creature at the zoo! Which means, of course…

…the humans, too!
That’s one of my favorite stories! And we are having a panda party at the National Zoo this year too! We are celebrating the 50th anniversary of giant pandas arriving at the National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute. This is a picture of Ling Ling and Hsing-Hsing, the first giant pandas to come to the National Zoo in 1972 as a gift from China to First Lady Pat Nixon.

In 2000, Mei Xiang and Tien Tien arrived at the National Zoo. Since then, they have had four cubs. This is their family tree. A family tree is a way to show how individuals are related to each other.

We are celebrating this pandaversary not just because we love pandas, but because over these 50 years, scientists at the Zoo and in China have worked together to learn more about pandas and there has been wonderful progress made to help keep pandas around the world safe. When giant pandas first came to the Zoo in 1972, they were endangered, meaning there were very few of them left in the wild.  But today, the numbers in the wild have grown and giant pandas are no longer endangered because scientists shared what they had learned with each other and because people shared that they thought pandas were important. And stamps have played a part in that story!

Maureen: Thanks for sharing all of that, Emily! You’re right that stamps have helped spread the message that pandas are important and should be protected. Let’s look at a few examples.

The first panda stamps we’re looking at are from the Endangered Species sets issued by the United Nations in 1985 and 2012. The United Nations is an international group that works for global peace and cooperation. As Emily told us, pandas used to be an endangered species, and they were featured on these United Nations’ stamp sets to help raise awareness of them and the danger they were in. Postage stamps are small, but each design can be printed and sent around the world millions of times, so they can also be a very powerful way to spread an important message. We’re so glad pandas are no longer endangered, and maybe having their images on stamps has helped with that!

Pandas are very popular in the United States, and in 1992, 20 years after pandas first arrived at the National Zoo, the United States Postal Service dedicated a stamp to them. When you look at the details of this stamp, do you notice any of the characteristics that all pandas share that Emily told us about? I see several, including the black and white markings, the claws, and the short ears. I also notice the panda is eating bamboo!

The mountains in the southwest of China are the only place in the world where pandas live in the wild, and there are many stamps from China that have pandas on them. This set is from 1973, the year after China gave the US two pandas as a gift. These stamps are all done in the brush painting style that originated in China hundreds of years ago. Do you notice anything else in common among the six stamps in this set? What I notice is that most of them show bamboo – the plant that pandas eat so much of, and several of them show adult pandas with a baby panda. The baby pandas that we’ve had at the National Zoo have captured the hearts of visitors from all over the world. If you can’t visit the pandas in person, you can watch them on the Zoo’s panda cam!

Although pandas only live in the bamboo forests of China, they are beloved all over the world, and there are hundreds of international stamps with pandas on them. Here are just a few examples, from Bhutan, Tanzania, Mongolia, Malaysia, and Italy. Did you notice the small panda logo on the stamp from Italy? That’s the logo for the World Wide Fund for Nature, which for a long time was called the World Wildlife Fund. The organization was founded in 1961 to help protect animals and reduce the impact humans have on the environment. Pandas have long been a symbol of the urgency of protecting nature, and we’re proud to care for and celebrate the pandas at the Smithsonian.

Emily: That was a lot of fun talking all about panda bears! If you’d like to learn more about pandas and other zoo animals, check out the National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute’s website for more content and resources, and of course, the Panda Cam.

Maureen: Thanks so much, Emily, and thank you to our audience for joining us today. If you’d like to learn more about animals on stamps and about a whole lot of other topics you can check out the National Postal Museum’s website. We encourage you to just keep exploring!