A Few Facts about Panda Food
It is common knowledge that the panda bear relies on a steady diet of bamboo, but it is likely that many are not aware that panda food has evolved from meat to bamboo over the years.
The few remaining pandas live in Southwest China in the cold and damp mountainous regions of the area. Forests of evergreens and leafy trees tower here, with patches of bamboo growing below. There are about 25 varieties of bamboo that are food sources for the bear, but within their normal ranges, only four or five of these are used as panda food. Each type of bamboo grows in individual patches. As bamboo matures, flowers and then seeds are produced before the plant dies away. When this happens, pandas must move to another area to find food.
An unusual fact about the panda is that its digestive system is actually designed for a carnivore. Scientists believe that over the 2 or 3 million years that the panda is known to have existed, they have adapted their diets. This is most likely due to the fact that they were unable to compete with other carnivorous animals for food. While they are designed to eat meat, bamboo is the principal panda food; although grasses and small animals are consumed from time to time as well.
The fact that they have this carnivorous digestive system yet eat an almost exclusively herbivorous diet means that much of the bamboo that the panda eats is eliminated as waste. Not much of the plant’s nutrients are absorbed at a time, so the panda must eat large quantities in frequent feedings in order to get the nutrients they require. Up to 40 pounds a day of bamboo is eaten by the panda; food that is becoming scarcer as their habitats grow smaller and smaller.
Water is a much needed element for the panda. A large part of the requirements are obtained from the panda food, bamboo shoots and grasses which contains about 50% water. Mountain rivers and streams, flowing from high peaks were snow continuously melts and feeds the tributaries, supplies the panda with the rest of the water they need.
In zoos where the bear is protected, diets are more varied. While bamboo is still supplied as panda food, their diets are supplemented with root vegetables such as carrots and yams. Specially formulated biscuits are also offered to make sure the pandas in captivity are receiving all of the nutrients their stocky bodies require.
There is no definitive answer as to how and why the panda changed its diet from meat to bamboo, or even when. It is known, however, that bamboo is now a necessary panda food that is becoming less and less available to the bear in the wild; challenging its very survival. Preserving these natural habitats will ensure the panda will be with us for generations to come.