Can Pandas Climb Trees?

Written by Mike Edmisten
Updated: June 6, 2023
© Hung Chung Chih/
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The internet is filled with videos of giant panda bears (Ailuropoda melanoleuca). The most popular of these videos feature the black-and-white bears tumbling, rolling, somersaulting, and falling. Pandas are clumsy in a most adorable way. This inelegance doesn’t seem to suggest that giant panda bears would be adept tree climbers, but is that actually the case? Can these clumsy bears scale a tree?

Yes, pandas can climb trees.

Giant panda bears in forest tree
Giant panda bears can indeed climb trees!

© Chung Chih

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Bears Are Climbers

All bear species can climb trees, although some are much more adept climbers than others.

Polar bears can only climb as cubs, and even that is a rarity. However, there is video evidence that polar bear cubs can climb trees. Mature polar bears are far too heavy for tree climbing, though. An adult male can wear upwards of 1,000 pounds. Imagine trying to haul that bulk up a tree! Plus, there are no trees on the arctic sea ice where the bear hunts, so mature polar bears have no need to climb trees anyway.

Grizzly bears can climb trees as well, but they too usually only climb as cubs. Their claws are designed for slashing, not for climbing. These bears grow to massive sizes, as well. However, while it is rare, a mature grizzly can scale a tree if properly motivated. The old advice suggesting you can escape a grizzly bear by climbing a tree is definitely not true!

Three grizzly cubs have climbed this tree to escape a large male bear below, and are waiting for their mother to return to them.
These grizzly cubs climbed a tree to escape a large male bear below.


Sun bears, spectacled bears, sloth bears, and black bears are all skilled tree climbers. Cubs will climb trees for protection. Mature adults will forage and even sleep in trees. Just how easily can these bears scale a tree? Check out one hunter’s video of a black bear moving up a tree with lightning speed!

Climbing Giant Panda Bears

If all bears can climb trees, then giant panda bears can, as well. There was a time when pandas were not believed to be bears but rather members of the Procyonidae family, the same as raccoons. DNA testing in the 1980s revealed that pandas are actually members of the Ursidae (bear) family. They are true bears, and they can climb trees as all true bears can. 

Giant panda bears are in the middle of the pack when it comes to bear climbers. A panda will never climb a tree with the speed and agility of a black bear, but they are far better climbers than grizzlies and polar bears. And, unlike the sun bear (the most arboreal of all bears) which spends the majority of its life in trees, giant pandas are mostly ground-dwelling bears. But pandas can scale a tree if the mood strikes them.

How Can Pandas Climb Trees?

Conservation physicist Andrew Schulz has studied the giant panda bear’s climbing adeptness. He notes that pandas do not appear to be built for climbing. They have large heads, pudgy bodies, and short legs. Schulz mused, “I like to call them corgi bears.” 

The corgi-to-panda comparison is certainly fitting. Pandas have the shortest leg-to-body ratio among all bear species. How can these chubby, clumsy “corgi bears” scale a tree? They use their head, literally. 

As a panda makes its way up a tree, it will often momentarily press its head against the trunk of the tree. Using their head to hug the tree keeps the panda’s center of gravity directly above their back legs, giving them added stability. Human rock climbers hug their bodies against a rock for the same reason.

Giant Panda Bei Bei in a tree
They don’t climb with the speed or elegance of black bears, but giant panda bears can scale a tree.

© memon

By pressing its head into the tree trunk, the panda can release one of its front paws and then re-grasp a bit higher up the tree. The bear’s head acts as a makeshift fifth paw while climbing, pressed firmly against one side of the trunk and then the other as the bear shimmies up the tree.

Schulz noted that similar animal behavior has only been observed in baby kangaroos, which use their heads to lift themselves into their mother’s pouch.

Giant panda bears also have large, retractile claws that provide excellent grip when climbing a tree. While not as long as the tree-dwelling sun bear, panda claws are longer than those of a fast-climbing black bear. Pandas normally use their claws to tear bamboo (which makes up 99% of their diet), but these claws also come in handy when moving up a tree.

Why Do Pandas Climb Trees?

Now that we have established how giant panda bears climb trees, it naturally leads to another question: why do pandas climb trees? There are a number of reasons.


While giant panda bears are largely peaceful animals, they are true bears and can defend themselves with ferocity when necessary. As such, adult pandas have no natural predators. Panda cubs, however, are subject to predation. Snow leopards, dholes, and golden jackals will not pass up a vulnerable panda cub.

Cubs rely solely on their mothers for protection. The only real defense a panda cub has is scaling a tree to escape danger. This is why organizations such as the Cheng du Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding evaluate the climbing skills of young pandas that are slated for release into the wild. If a panda seems to be a poor climber, that bear is not released since the odds of its survival are much lower than an adept-climbing panda.

young panda climbing a tree under the supervision of his mother in a park
For panda cubs, learning to climb a tree is essential to their survival.



Giant panda bears also climb trees to seek shelter. They will often climb into a hollow tree to shelter from the harsh weather that is common in their native range in the mountains of central China. Pandas don’t establish home dens and will sleep in any available hollow tree.

Mothers will also use hollow trees as maternity dens. Panda cubs are severely underdeveloped at birth. Cubs may measure just six inches long and weigh as little as 3.5 ounces, approximately 1/900 of the mother panda’s weight. A hollow tree provides shelter and protection for these utterly defenseless cubs.

panda baby newborn incubation hold
Newborn panda cubs are underdeveloped and completely defenseless.



Pandas spend the majority of their day eating. Bamboo is nutrient-poor, so these bears must eat a lot to fuel their large bodies. They also conserve energy by lounging, both on the ground and in a tree. A fork in the branches of a tree makes a perfect panda recliner!


Pandas are highly intelligent and need mental stimulation. Because they are often solitary animals, pandas have to entertain themselves. Sometimes, it seems a panda will climb a tree for the same reason that famed British climber, George Mallory, attempted to climb Mt. Everest: “Because it’s there.” As an example, this video of a panda named Mao Sun shows the bear climbing a tree, seemingly for no other reason than just because she could.

But Pandas Fall a Lot!

Yes, they do. But, at least some of the time, the falls appear to be on purpose. The National Zoo tweeted a video of a panda named Bei Bei climbing and falling as part of her play.

Some of those famous clumsy panda videos on YouTube are actually footage of pandas rolling, tumbling, and falling on purpose as they play.

That is not to say that every panda fall is purposeful, though. These bears are clumsy and some of their tumbles are certainly not planned. Evidence suggests that pandas experience something akin to embarrassment when they take an unexpected tumble. But, even if a fall hurts their pride, it doesn’t often hurt their bodies. These rotund bears have enough body fat to absorb some pretty hard tumbles without injury. 

Pandas also have thick, heavy skulls. This is primarily to support the massive jaw muscles needed to chew through tough, fibrous bamboo. Pandas have a bite force that rivals that of hippopotamuses, lions, brown bears, polar bears, and tigers. But, along with supporting its substantial jaw muscles, the panda’s thick skull also protects it during a fall.

Even with all their stumbles and tumbles, pandas can indeed climb trees. It may not look pretty or graceful, but they always seem to make a way!

giant panda hanging in a tree
Sometimes a tree is a perfect spot to rest.


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About the Author

A freelance writer in Cincinnati, OH, Mike is passionate about the natural world. He, his wife, and their two sons love the outdoors, especially camping and exploring US National Parks. A former pastor, he also writes faith-based content to encourage and inspire. And, for reasons inexplicable, Mike allows Cincinnati sports teams to break his heart every year.

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